From the Fact Check Desk: Stem Cell Selling

By Julia Hoppock

Sep 23, 2008 12:05pm

The campaigns of both Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., are running radio ads on embryonic stem cell research. McCain is doing so to highlight his maverick and more moderate positions; Obama is doing so to paint McCain as an extremist.

Both candidates mislead voters by glossing over or ignoring inconvenient facts.

The script for the Obama radio ad is as follows:

Jody: My name is Jody Montgomery and my daughter Maddy was diagnosed with Type I Juvenile Diabetes at age 3.  Six times a day, I take her blood.  Six times a day, I pray for a cure. Researchers are working hard to do just that. Our best hope is stem cell research, and that’s why we support Barack Obama.

ANNOUNCER:  Stem cell research could unlock cures for diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, too. But John McCain has stood in the way … he’s opposed stem cell research.  Picked a running mate who’s against it … And he’s running on a platform even more extreme than George Bush’s on this vital research. John McCain doesn’t understand that medical research benefiting millions shouldn’t be held hostage by the political views of a few.   

Jody:  For Maddy and millions of others, stem cell research can unlock cures.  Barack Obama understands that.  But John McCain just doesn’t. 

The script for the McCain campaign radio ad — which you can listen to HERE — is as follows:

ANNOUNCER: They’re the original mavericks. Leaders. Reformers. Fighting for real change. John McCain will lead his congressional allies to improve America’s health. Stem cell research to unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. Stem cell research to help free families from the fear and devastation of illness. Stem cell research to help doctors repair spinal cord damage, knee injuries, serious burns. Stem cell research to help stroke victims. And, John McCain and his congressional allies will invest millions more in new NIH medical research to prevent disease. Medical breakthroughs to help you get better, faster. Change is coming.  McCain-Palin and congressional allies. The leadership and experience to really change Washington and improve your health. Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.

**

A little background here.

It wasn’t until 2001 that McCain supported federal funding of research involving embryonic stem cell research.

Before then, he opposed it.

In February 2000, McCain was one of 20 Republican senators who wrote to the National Institutes of Health to disallow draft rules that would allow scientists to use embryonic stem cells in research.

"Clearly, the destruction of human embryos is an integral part of the contemplated research, in violation of the law," McCain and the 19 other senators wrote. "In December, N.I.H. officials proposed regulations allowing the agency to finance research on stem cells, a promising but controversial approach to treating disease. They said the policy would not conflict with the ban. The draft rules would permit researchers, supported by the agency, to use stem cells from suppliers who had received no N.I.H. money to support the work."

But on July 15, 2001, McCain went on "Meet the Press" and told Tim Russert that he had flip-flopped on the issue.

Why?

"I’ve looked at the issue more carefully," McCain said. "I have talked with numerous scientific experts. I believe that under stringent safeguards and under the most rigorous kinds of procedures, that this can help in finding the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other serious diseases. I had supported, in the past, fetal tissue research, and this is an earlier stage, as you know, of the process. So, I think it’s an issue that I was educated on."

Since then, McCain has been a reliable vote in favor of allowing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Thus, when Obama’s radio ad says, "John McCain has stood in the way … he’s opposed stem cell research," it is misleading voters by not pointing out that McCain changed his mind on the issue seven years ago and currently supports stem cell research.  The ad cleverly uses the word "has" to imply that McCain still opposes the research — which is not true.

Moreover, the ad’s assertion that "John McCain doesn’t understand that medical research benefiting millions shouldn’t be held hostage by the political views of a few," is debatable. McCain says he supports the research and has voted in favor of it, as recently as 2007.

**

But, where McCain misleads voters is how he glosses over everything except for that relatively short-lived position.

Most glaring in its obfuscation, the ad sells the "McCain-Palin" ticket as supporting this research, but fails to mention Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposes embryonic stem cell research, as she said in a 2006 gubernatorial debate: "stem cell research would ultimately end in the destruction of life. I couldn’t support it."

Moreover, the 2008 Republican Party Platform is clearly opposed to this research, stating "we call for a major expansion of support for the stem cell research that now shows amazing promise and offers the greatest hope for scores of diseases — with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells — without the destruction of embryonic human life. We call for a ban on human cloning and a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes."

And some informed observers wonder if McCain remains committed to the cause.

Are McCain and his campaign sending signals of some sort? National Right to Life Committee executive director David O’Steen told The Hill last month that those who oppose abortion rights believe McCain’s mind is open on the subject of stem cell research. 

Several advocates of embryonic stem cell research told the Associated Press this week that they’re no longer certain where McCain is on this issue. McCain campaign spokeswoman Sarah Lenti told the AP that McCain "still supports easing federal restrictions and ‘his position hasn’t changed.’ But she declined to say specifically what McCain would do if elected."

In June, McCain met privately in Ohio with a number of wary Christian conservative activists. The Los Angeles Times reported that McCain “told the small assembly that he was open to learning more about their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, despite his past disagreements with them on the issue. … McCain listened as one of the country’s leading opponents of using embryonic stem cells, Dr. John Willke, made the case for relying on adult cells. Some scientists have reported finding ways to manipulate human skin cells to have properties similar to embryonic stem cells. Several participants said McCain did not offer any indication he would change his mind, but they said they were impressed that he appeared open to Willke’s points."

Ohio Right to Life executive director Mike Gonidakis told the Times that "It appears as if he’s willing to at least look at the science and decide which way he goes from there."

And while McCain in his radio ad heralds the "congressional allies" who will help him push this research, one of those key allies — the chief House Republican in favor of embryonic stem cell research, Rep. Mike Castle, D-Del. — told The Hill last month that, while McCain had the right voting record on the issue, he wasn’t sure McCain as president would support the cause.

"The question becomes: Will the pro-life movement be able to persuade him otherwise, between now and the election?" said Castle.

In short, Obama overstates McCain’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

But McCain implies that Palin shares his views on this issue, which isn’t true.

And while not an item to fact check, per se, McCain has sure caused a lot of advocates for that research — including the "congressional allies" he mentions in the ad — to doubt how committed he remains to their cause.

- jpt

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