May 26, 2024

Embryo research divides candidates in final weeks

In the closing weeks of the US presidential campaign, the use of embryonic stem cells (ESCs) has become a clear point of difference between the two candidates. Senator Kerry has given it his firm and frequent support, while President Bush is depicting his own policy as pragmatic but principled.

It was expected that the issue would emerge in the third televised debate between the candidates this week. But there was only an oblique reference to it when Kerry was asked about Catholic bishops opposition to ESC research. "I am a Catholic and I grew up learning how to respect those views, but I disagree with them, as do many," Mr Kerry said. "I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith."

Some pundits predict that the recent death of quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, a passionate advocate of government funding for ESC research, will be used as a rallying point to remind voters of the divide between the candidates. According to polling expert Matthew Nisbet, of Ohio State University, voters need to be reminded of the benefits of stem cell research or "they gravitate back towards a sort of ambivalence toward it".

The Kerry campaign is now using a TV advertisement featuring Michael J. Fox, a well-known actor with Parkinson’s disease and another strong supporter of ESC research. "George Bush says we can wait. I say lives are at stake and it’s time for leadership," Fox says. That’s why I support John Kerry for president."

Early in the month Kerry promised to spend US$100 million a year on ESC research, claiming that treatments "could be right at our fingertips" if Bush had not banned the research. Bush supporter Dr Leon Kass, the head of the administration’s bioethics council, denied that his boss did anything of the sort, pointing out that he actually supported "vigorous and responsible" research with limited public funding.

A colleague of Dr Kass on the council, Dr Rebecca Dresser, pointed out at a conference that the hype surrounding stem cell therapies was diverting attention from serious social justice issues. Exaggerated claims provided politicians with "a easy and cheap way to show their concern for suffering patients" without doing anything for "the burgeoning health care crisis in this country".