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Stem Cells in Election Season: Surprisingly Low Profile

Genetic Crossroads
October 20th, 2006

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.

President Bush's 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 (1, 2) are still arguing that stem cell research holds the key to numerous races.

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 races.

Stem 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.

Hlinko identified 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.

Elsewhere, some 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.

What explains 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 scrutiny.

Second, it's 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 are convincing.

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.

Among them: 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?


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