In an election season dominated by contentious bickering
over reproductive rights, in which extremists in South
Dakota and Colorado
are trying to elevate the zygote and even the fertilized egg as rights-bearing
people above women, it’s strange that stem cell research hasn’t played as
dramatic a role as it did in 2004. Opinions
about stem cell research tend to be tied to opinions about abortion rights,
because stem cells create the perfect cover story for anti-choicers looking to
be viewed as deeply loving of life so innocent that it hasn’t graduated to the cell
Interestingly, John McCain is running ads highlighting
his support for stem cell research. Why
interesting? You wouldn’t guess that
McCain, who has a consistent 0%
rating from NARAL, would break with anti-choice activists on this
issue. But his political instincts
aren’t off on this. It’s understood that
opposition to abortion rights is tied to and often co-exists with opposition to
sex education and hostility to contraception–in other words, it’s about controlling
sex and curtailing women’s health, not about the sacredness of unspecialized
cellular life. But stem cell research
doesn’t have anything to do with restricting women’s rights, except to function
as a political stalking horse, so as a strong anti-choice plank, I doubt it
will ever resonate even with voters who do oppose reproductive rights.
isn’t lying about his support for stem cell research, as his voting record
shows. There’s been a great deal of
interest in Sarah Palin’s opinions on this matter, but the confusion and evidence of evasion
on the issue suggests that her opinion was strongly negative and that the
McCain campaign is focusing on prioritizing McCain’s opinion. It would be highly unusual for a stalwart culture
warrior such as Palin to break with other hard liners on the issue of stem
cell research, so skepticism is justified when the McCain campaign claims her
unwavering support on this issue.
Usually I’d caution about making that big a deal out of a
wedge between a candidate and a running mate on this issue. The Vice President’s opinion on these matters
doesn’t matter unless there’s a tie in the Senate on legislation, a rare enough
occasion that’s unlikely to happen on stem cell research. But McCain’s advanced age and health problems
mean that if he wins, we run a much higher risk than usual of seeing a Vice
President ascendant, and so Pain’s views deserve the same scrutiny as McCain’s.
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Why would McCain break with the demands of anti-choice
activists on this issue? It’s possible that he doesn’t see
this line of attack bearing any fruit in his eventual goal of restricting
women’s reproductive rights, movement leader tactics be damned. But McCain
might also have a personal relationship to the issue. Researchers speculate that stem cell research
might not only lead to breakthroughs in treating diabetes and degenerative
nerve disease, but also to treat disabilities much like the ones that have
plagued McCain since his stint as a POW.
It’s close to impossible that the research will have produced results in
time to help McCain, of course, but there’s nothing like having gone through an
experience like becoming disabled to make you more sympathetic to people in
Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama strongly supports
expanded stem cell research. His
position draws less attention than McCain’s, because it doesn’t conflict with
his base supporters’ views in any way.
If you don’t need opposition to stem cell research as a tool to chip
away at abortion rights, then there’s no reason to touch it. Obama hasn’t gone to the pains to educate the
public about his opinions on this issue that McCain has, no doubt because most
people can deduce from his consistently pro-choice and pro-science views that
he would support stem cell research.
The low profile of stem cell research this election means
that supporters will probably miss the opportunity to educate the public further
on this issue, unfortunately.
Anti-choicers consistently link stem cell research to abortion – so huge
percentages of the public couldn’t be blamed for thinking embryonic stem cells
are cultivated from the products of abortion.
But that’s not true at all. It’s
a practical impossibility to get stem cells that way, for gross biological
reasons that might be hard to digest before you’ve had your coffee. No, stem cells are gathered from leftover
embryos created during the in-vitro fertilization process that helps infertile
The real linkage to abortion is tenuous at best. Anti-choicers hope that opposition to stem
cell research will establish their bona fides as true protectors of all unborn
life (born life can, as usual, fend for itself), which is hard for them to do
when their behavior is usually more consistent with what you’d expect from
people who are hostile to sexual freedom and women’s rights. As a political ploy, opposition to stem cell
research is shockingly cynical. It’s not
like any embryos that die in the process of this research had a chance to
become babies–the options for these cells are the research lab or the trash
With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that even anti-choice
politicians draw the line at opposing stem cell research. Sacrificing the possibility of dramatic
breakthroughs in medical treatment for the sake of creating an insincere
political cover to attack women’s rights crosses the lines of all but the most
hardened opponents of reproductive rights.