March 2, 2024

Stem cells continue to fuel debate in US election

John Kerry embraces Dana Reeve, widow of Christopher Reeve, on the campaign trail

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry continued to boost stem cell research in the closing days of his campaign, painting his opponent as an enemy of science and progress. In Ohio he jeered that if George Bush had been President during other periods in American history, he would have sided with the candle lobby against electricity, the buggy-makers against cars, and typewriter companies against computers.”

Armed with a warm endorsement from the widow of Christopher Reeve, the recently deceased quadriplegic activist for stem cell research, Mr Kerry promised that he would remove restrictions on scientific research. “It is wrong to tell scientists that they can’t cross the frontiers of new knowledge,” he declared. “It is wrong morally and it is wrong economically. When I am president, we will change this policy, and we will lead the world in stem cell research.”

However, his running mate, John Edwards, blew one breath too many into the balloon of stem cell hype earlier this month. Edwards told a rally in Iowa, “If we do the work that we can do in the country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again”.

Edwards’s opponents pounced on his tub-thumping rhetoric and tore it to shreds. In a scathing column in the Washington Post, conservative political pundit Charles Krauthammer declared that “in my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately, for personal gain, raising false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.” Krauthammer, who is a psychiatrist and a paraplegic, has been one of the leading sceptics in the American media about the potential of stem cells. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

However, this did not stop other prominent politicians from endorsing embryonic stem cell research. Former vice-president Al Gore argued in Seattle that researchers should not be hindered from pursuing opportunities to save lives. And in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed a controversial US$3 billion bond issue which would pay for embryonic and adult stem cell research.