Stem Cell Research and the Presidential Candidates

Posted by Jesse Reynolds August 19, 2008
Biopolitical Times
Barack Obama and John McCain

Over the weekend, the presumptive presidential candidates of the major American political parties each described their positions on embryonic stem research. At a televised conversation with popular pastor - and author of the best selling nonfiction book besides the Bible - Rick Warren, both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama made clear they support embryonic stem cell research, but with different emphases.

McCain gave a slightly befuddled response:

For those of us in the pro life community, this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we're also taught other obligations that we have as well. I've come down on the side of stem cell research, but I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research which is coming more and more into focus and practicability will make this debate an economic one.

Obama's answer was much clearer and more detailed:

Keep in mind the way that stem cells legislation that was vetoed by the president was structured, what it said was you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded, that had been created as a consequence of attempts at in vitro fertilization. So there were very tightly circumscribed mechanisms that were permitted. I think that that is a legitimate moral approach to take.

If we are going to discard those embryos and we know that there's potential research that could lead to curing debilitating disease, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, if that possibility presents itself then I think we should in a careful way go ahead and pursue that research. Now, if in fact adult stem cell lines are working just as well, then of course we should try to avoid any kind of moral arguments that may be in place.

But I want to make a broader point, Pastor Rick on an issue like stem cell research. It's not like people who are in favor of stem cell research are going around thinking to themselves boy let's go destroy some embryos. That's not the perspective that I think people come to that issue on. I think what they say is we would not tolerate a situation in which, you know, we're encouraging human cloning or in some ways diminishing the sacred necessary of human life and what it means to be human, but that in narrow circumstances, you know, there is nothing inappropriate with us pursuing scientific research certain of that could lead to cures so long as we're not designing embryos for that purpose.

Obama has consistently supported research that uses embryos created for reproductive purposes but that would otherwise be destroyed (1, 2 [PDF]), and implicitly opposed creating embryos specifically for research purposes and cloning-based stem cell research.This position is also in line with the tenor of the draft 2008 Democratic Party platform [PDF], which calls for funding using "cells [sic] that would have otherwise have been discarded."

Because the two major candidates are in agreement not only about removing President Bush's restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but also over cloning-based stem cell research, the issue is unlikely to feature during the campaign. Of course,McCain could bow to conservative pressure to change his position, or Obama could propose that the product of somatic cell nuclear transfer is not really an embryo. But these scenarios are unlikely, at least before the election, as candidates typically move to the center once they've secured their party's nomination.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: