For two years,
conventional wisdom has held that embryonic stem cell research would
be a hot issue in the 2006 U.S. midterm elections. Pundits and analysts
assumed that Democratic Congressional and gubernatorial candidates
could use it as a wedge issue, splitting the ranks of Republicans.
veto of the bill loosening federal funding restrictions on stem
cell research—the first veto of his presidency—seemed
to emphasize the point. In the run-up to Election Day, some observers
are still arguing that stem cell research holds the key to numerous
But with voting
less than three weeks away, stem cell research is failing to materialize
as a major topic of debate, both nationally and in most individual
cell research is not a major talking point for the national Democratic
Party, and has become a second-tier issue—at best—in many
races where it was expected to figure large. A veteran grassroots
organizer who formed a vehicle to channel funding to pro-research
candidates has raised only $15,000 of his $100,000 goal. "I
hoped to have another zero on there, to be honest," stem cell
advocate John Hlinko recently said of his project, StemCellCandidates.com.
seven candidates who are both strongly supportive of embryonic stem
cell research and involved in close contests with stem cell opponents.
But even in these races, the Democratic candidates are generally
not giving the issue much play. Of Hlinko's seven, only three name
it as an issue on their website. One more makes a passing reference.
Beyond his list, the stem cell issue has emerged in only a handful
of races, many of which are not seen as competitive.
In the one tight
race where it has been assumed that stem cell research will be a
deciding factor—the Senate contest in Missouri—Democrat
Claire McCaskill now appears to be downplaying
the issue. The Missouri
stem cell initiative has contributed more to the issue's high
profile during this campaign season than has the Senate race.
Republican candidates in liberal states are playing up their support
for embryonic stem cell research, which quickly turns the topic
into a non-issue. This dynamic is clear, for example, in gubernatorial
races in California, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
the stem cell fade? In part, of course, it's the prominence of other
issues: Iraq and Republican Congressional scandals are weighing
far more heavily in the headlines than stem cell research.
There have also
been several political shifts in the stem cell issue itself. First,
as stories in the New
York Times and the Boston
Globe report, the widespread hyperbole about the imminence
of stem cell treatments and cures is beginning to come under increasing
become clear that there is significant and increasing bipartisan
support for stem cell research using "left over" embryos
in fertility clinics, though opinion polls continue to show opposition
and hesitancy about research cloning. These sentiments vary in the
U.S. by region and electoral district, but the aggregate numbers
As these dynamics
continue to develop, we can hope to see increasing traction for
more subtle understandings of stem cell and cloning research, and
of the social, ethical and economic questions they raise.
How can we tone down irresponsibly exaggerated claims about cures?
How will the research, and related procedures such as egg retrieval
and clinical trials, be regulated and overseen? Should priority
be given to research cloning? Who will have access to any medical
benefits that result, and who will bear the burdens and risks? Who
will fund the research and who will share in any financial returns?
How can we draw lines to prevent socially unacceptable applications
of human biotechnologies?
In other words,
what would "public interest stem cell research" and "public
interest human biotechnology" look like? And how can we move
in that direction?