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Candidates Divided on Stem Cell Research

Editor's note: This article is the first in a series on issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Embryonic stem cell research (search) is a bold new frontier in science, both presidential candidates agree. But they diverge when it comes to what limits should be placed on this research, and that split has emerged as an important wedge issue in the presidential campaign.

Embryonic stem cells come from days-old embryos, and because of that anti-abortion activists see it as a "life issue." Although President Bush (search) has allowed research on existing stem cell strands, he has barred research on new strands. Challenger John Kerry (search) sees Bush's position as a dangerous mistake that will limit future scientific breakthroughs and possibly prevent or delay scientists from finding cures to diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's.

First Lady Laura Bush (search) has emerged as the administration's primary spokeswoman on this issue. In her Aug. 31 address to the Republican National Convention (search), she defended the president's position.

"My husband is the first president to provide federal funding for stem cell research. And he did it in a principled way, allowing science to explore its potential while respecting the dignity of human life," she said.

Kerry's campaign argues that to explore its full potential, scientists must enjoy more freedom, meaning the barriers must be lifted. In a statement, the Kerry campaign criticized the restrictions as "ideologically driven" and the Massachusetts senator vowed to lift them if elected.

The issue was also featured at the Democratic National Convention (search), where Ron Reagan — whose father, the late president, suffered from Alzheimer's disease for a decade before his death on June 5 — pushed for more stem cell research.

"We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology. This is our moment, and we must not falter. Whatever else you do come Nov. 2, I urge you, please, cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research," Reagan said.

The Politics of Cash and Caring

When Bush originally provided funding for stem cell research, he said it would be limited to the 60 strands in existence on Aug. 9, 2001. That number was later increased to 78. But scientists now say that only 21 to 23 strands are available because the others were contaminated or proved not be as useful as once thought. Several scientists say this is not enough and that the new strands of colonies being developed with private funds or abroad are much more suitable for high-level research and experimentation.

Under the Bush policy, no federal funds can be used to destroy human embryos. Advocates of more open research, including the Kerry campaign, argue that scientists should be able to use stem cells from fertility clinic embryos that are no longer wanted by parents, as long as parents give their consent. Otherwise, the embryos would be discarded anyway. 

The limits on research and funding are slowing down breakthroughs, said John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American (search).

"Everybody does believe that shortage of funding in this area is really slowing down the process of how stem cells work," Rennie said.

But the issue is a complex one that many voters may not really understand, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (search), which opposes using stem cells from human embryos. "It's an issue that a lot of people are confused about. It's not one they can really wrap their arms around."

Perkins worried that voters would not turn out to oppose embryonic stem cell research, at least in part, because of confusion over the issue.

"Campaigns are not really about education. It's more about sound bites," Perkins said. "Stem cell research is not a topic that can be dealt with in sound bites."

Perkins also worried that the Bush administration was not representing its position effectively. Instead of focusing on the limits to embryonic stem cell research, the Bush administration should be touting its achievements with adult stem cell research, an older form of scientific exploration that is better funded and has yielded more results. Still, some scientists argue that research on embryonic stem cells holds more long-term promise for curing many diseases.

"There is concern I believe that the Bush campaign needs to work better at drawing the distinction between adult and embryonic, because that's where the results have been," Perkins said.

One group that has been pushing for more funding and fewer restrictions for embryonic stem cell research is the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (search), which is comprised of patient organizations, universities and others.

Dan Perry, president of CAMR, said it is hard to tell how many voters will cast their ballot solely on this issue, but it shouldn't be dismissed, especially in this political climate.

"We are talking about what is likely to be a very close race for the White House, so strategists on both sides take seriously an issue like embryonic stem cell research," he said.

For those concerned about this issue, the presidential race is exceedingly important because policy can be changed immediately in the Oval Office, Perry said.

"The first day after an election, they're not going to dramatically change policy in Iraq. The economy is not going to reverse itself, but this is an issue with a stroke of a pen the president can lift the restrictions and give new hope to hundreds of thousands or millions. [It is] uniquely amenable to an executive order."

The most recent polls indicate that Kerry's position is clearly favored by voters.

Harris Interactive (search) poll released on Sept. 7 show that 72 percent of respondents, including large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents, believed that as long as the parents of the embryo give their permission, and the embryo would otherwise be destroyed, stem cell research should be allowed. Harris interviewed 2,242 adults between July 12 and 18, and the poll's margin of error was +/- 2 percentage points.

Rennie warned that some parts of this debate are frequently mischaracterized, such as the timeline of potential benefits from embryonic stem cell research. "If someone has Alzheimer's now, I would not count on an Alzheimer's cure coming out anytime soon."

He also said both campaigns have pushed the envelope somewhat in the way they have characterized the issue.

The "administration's position has been characterized as a ban. I think that’s certainly not strictly true. On the other hand, I think sometimes the administration is being a little disingenuous when it pats itself on the back for being the only administration to dedicate any money because this field has matured under this administration," he said.