WASHINGTON—Unexpectedly, stem cell research has emerged as a central issue in at least eight congressional campaigns — a fact that may have ramifications far beyond next week’s midterm elections, and beyond the core subject of scientific research. In fact, the broad support for embryonic stem cell research evident in the Senate battles in Missouri, Ohio, and Maryland and House races in California, Florida, and New Jersey, among others, stands as an open challenge to the Christian Right’s longstanding monopoly on questions of life and death.
Support for stem cell research has surfaced even among social conservatives who oppose abortion rights and gay rights, viewing both as matters of failed morality or “lifestyle choice” that should be banned through legislation. It has become a key issue for those all-important moderate and “undecided” voters, to whom these other social issues are personally removed and even abstract. Just about everyone knows someone who is suffering from a disease that might be cured or mitigated through stem cell research. And the idea that the Christian Right is blocking this vital scientific work is seriously raising hackles across the political spectrum.
The issue may also have implications for the Republican Party, where political success in the Bush II era has relied on fiscal conservatives’ willingness to make common cause with Christian fundamentalists. These fiscal conservatives haven’t much cared what happened to the rights of gays or even women, as long as it got them their tax cuts. But for some — those who have a child with cystic fibrosis or juvenile diabetes, or a parent with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s — this just may be the point where they get sick of the Christian Right’s meddling.
Here are some, by all means not all, of the more visible fights on the issue:
* The best known is the nip and tuck Missouri Senate race where Democrat Claire McCaskill first introduced Michael J. Fox into the debate, in her contest with the incumbent Republican, Jim Talent. The citizenry will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that says all stem cell research approved at the federal level is likewise approved at the state level. This highly unusual proposition includes precise prison sentences and fines, for example, calling for a 15 year prison sentence and/or $200,000 fine for anyone who tries to implant a scientifically cloned embryo into a woman’s uterus in order to produce a cloned child. Talent opposes research that destroys embryos.
* In Ohio Democratic Senate challenger Sherrod Brown, who supports stem cell research, used Fox in what looks to be a winning campaign against Mike DeWine, who says that embryonic stem cell research destroys human life.
* Wisconsin was the first state where scientists were successful in isolating stem cells from embryos. In the gubernatorial race, Democrat incumbent Jim Doyle wants the state to have the leading edge in developing stem cell research. His Republican rival, currently a member of the US Congress, Mark Green wants to ban “therapeutic cloning” and voted for Bush’s limits on federal funding in 2001. Despite Green’s voting record, former Wisconsin Gov. and former Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson is attempting to refute charges that Green wants to block stem cell research.
* In the Maryland Senate race, Democratic Congressman Ben Cardin supports embryonic stem cell research and Republican lieutenant governor. Michael Steele opposes embryonic, but supports adult stem cell research. Fox appears in an ad for Cardin claiming, “George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research.” Steele has his sister, Monica Turner, herself a victim of multiple sclerosis, appear in his own ads and she says Cardin’s ad with Fox is “deceptive” and “tasteless,” She claims her brother supports adult stem cell research.
On Meet the Press, Steele set out his position: “We have 400,000 (unneeded embryos in storage), I think, across the country,” Steele said. “I would pursue options that would allow us to look at adoption of some of those embryos,” at least for those which are viable. “I see that as a life, and I don’t think that we should use federal funds to (destroy embryos in stem cell research), and that’s the difference to me,” he added.
* In one of the tightest races in the country, Michael J. Fox appeared at a Jim Webb rally at Clarendon Ballroom in Arlington on Thursday. Fox was good humored about Rush Limbaugh’s imitation of his Parkinson’s symptoms on the air. “When you read that [Limbaugh] quote, you forgot to do the interpretive dance that goes with it,” said Fox. At the rally, Webb emphasized stem cell research as a factor in “the quality of scientific research in this country.” “People who in my view don’t understand the scientific value in this belong in 1806,” Webb told supporters. Incumbent Republican Senator George Allen supported President Bush’s ban on federal funding for stem cell research.
* In Florida, Mark Foley’s 16th district, Joe Negron, the Republican supports research with adult stem cells. Democrat Tim Mahoney supports embryonic stem cell research because “these are embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway.”
* In California’s 11th congressional district, Democratic challenger Jerry McNerny has said embryonic stem cell research is an integral part of his health care reform program. At a press conference, he said, “We need to move forward with stem cell research. Our country needs to support it as a tool for our health system.” Congressman Richard Pombo takes the Bush position and opposes use of human embryos for stem cell research.
In California, Prop 71 established a constitutional right to conduct stem cell research and up to $3 million in federal loans for a new institute. After President Bush’s decision to veto federal funding for the research, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in with $150 million in funding. But the money has been slow to arrive due to political and legal hold-ups.
On the surface the issue is simple and direct: do we back science in this area which some believe will yield greater knowledge of human cells, in the hope — often distant — of leading to cures for a range of fatal and debilitating illnesses: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lymphoma, spinal cord injuries?
But beyond that stem cell issue raises other questions of life and death and of privacy that increasingly lie just below the surface of political debate. Every so often they emerge in highly charged debate that eventually draws the local, state and federal governmental agencies, the Congress and the court system into deciding whether a person should live or die, whether the state can intrude on an individual’s privacy the case of Terri Schiavo providing the most recent example.
At the Democratic convention in Boston two years ago Ron Reagan, whose father, the former president, died of Alzheimer’s, put it powerfully in his speech supporting stem cell research:
“I know a child — well, she must be 13 now — I guess I’d better call her a young woman. She has fingers and toes. She has a mind. She has memories. She has hopes. She has juvenile diabetes. Like so many kids with this disease, she’s adjusted amazingly well. The — the insulin pump she wears — she’s decorated hers with rhinestones. She can handle her own catheter needle. She’s learned to sleep through the blood drawings in the wee hours of the morning.
She’s very brave. She is also quite bright and understands full well the progress of her disease and what that might ultimately mean: blindness, amputation, diabetic coma. Every day, she fights to have a future.
What excuse will we offer this young woman should we fail her now? What might we tell her children? Or the millions of others who suffer? That when given an opportunity to help, we turned away? That facing political opposition, we lost our nerve? That even though we knew better, we did nothing?”