A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Stem Cell Spinning


Summary

An Obama-Biden radio ad hammers McCain for being opposed to stem cell research. Not true. Meanwhile two spots from the McCain-Palin campaign, together with the Republican National Committee, describe McCain’s support for the research; they’re largely accurate.

By saying that "John McCain has stood in the way – he’s opposed stem cell research," the Obama ad seriously misstates the view that McCain has held on this issue since 2001, when he began backing embryonic stem cell research, a position that was out of step with that of many of his fellow Republicans.

The McCain/RNC ads would probably lead listeners to believe that Palin shares McCain’s views on this topic. That’s not true. But we find that to be a minor flaw compared with the misrepresentation in Obama’s ad.

Analysis

We first noticed that stem cell research had become a subject of campaign radio ads when Sen. John McCain and the Republican National Committee released one on Sept. 12 touting his support for it. Then Sen. Barack Obama came back with his own ad, saying that "John McCain has stood in the way – he’s opposed stem cell research." McCain and the RNC countered with yet another, this time taking the Obama campaign to task for its ad.

Republican National Committee Ad: "Stem Cell"

 

 Click here to listen to the radio ad.

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.

McCain: I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

What’d We Miss?

McCain has been known for supporting federally funded stem cell research since 2001, so his first ad didn’t ring any alarm bells with us. It touted McCain’s support for "stem cell research to unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes, heart disease."

Obama’s ad did set sirens off, however. McCain "stood in the way" and "opposed stem cell research"? Maybe we’d missed something.

McCain didn’t mention embryonic stem cell research in his ad, a subject that has put him at odds with some in his party, including President George W. Bush (though, notably, not former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whom he credited with helping to change his stance back in ’01). Was he now in favor of using only adult stem cell lines for research, and had he done something to "stand in the way" of other options?

Nope. It turns out nothing much has changed at all. In 2004, McCain was one of 14 GOP members of Congress who signed a letter to Bush asking him to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, citing its potential to lead to treatments or cures for deadly and crippling diseases and conditions. In 2006, he was one of 19 Republicans to vote for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a bill that Bush vetoed. The bill allowed use only of embryos that were frozen or slated for destruction anyway by fertility clinics. There was a similar vote in 2007, in which McCain voted the same way. 

McCain’s response to a question about funding embryonic stem cell research at an MSNBC Republican candidate debate in 2007 was strongly supportive.

Q: Would you expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research?

McCain (May 3, 2007): I believe that we need to fund this. This is a tough issue for those of us in the pro-life community. I would remind you that these stem cells are either going to be discarded or perpetually frozen. We need to do what we can to relieve human suffering. It’s a tough issue. I support federal funding.

And now? The McCain-Palin campaign’s Web site says the ticket supports embryonic stem cell research, but not the creation of embryos for that purpose, which is right in line with previous statements he’s made: 

McCain-Palin site: John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. To that end, Senator McCain voted to ban the practice of "fetal farming," making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes.
McCain elaborated in an answer he gave Science Debate 2008, a group whose members include numerous Nobel laureates, elected officials, university presidents and others, when it asked him for his position on "government regulation and funding of stem cell research":

  

McCain (Sept. 15): While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic. I oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes and I voted to ban the practice of “fetal farming,” making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes.

 

Will It Cure Lame Back-Up Disease?

Obama-Biden Ad: "Stem Cell"

Click here to listen to the radio ad.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama, candidate for president, and I approve this message.

Jody Montgomery: My name is Jody Montgomery and my daughter Maddy was diagnosed with Type I Juvenile Diabetes at age three. 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.

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

Announcer: Paid for by Obama for America

To substantiate its claim that McCain "opposed" and "stood in the way" of stem cell research, the Obama-Biden campaign offers support that can charitably be described as inadequate. The campaign cites an article that describes McCain’s meeting with a group of Christian conservative leaders. The article quotes some participants as saying "they were impressed that he seemed open" to the points made by one of the nation’s leading opponents of embryonic stem cell research. But the article also said McCain "did not offer any indication he would change his mind."

The Obama camp also cites two articles saying that religious conservatives weren’t enthusiastic about McCain in part because of his position on the issue, and another describing Republican Rep. Mike Castle’s concern that McCain could flip due to pressure from the evangelical wing of the party. Castle is a strong proponent of federal backing of embryonic stem cell research.

We’d say that the Obama campaign’s arguments add up to pretty weak tea, but that would be a slight to the popular and storied beverage.

 

A Little Off

McCain-Palin/ Republican National Committee Ad: "Stem Cell Response"

Click here to listen to the radio ad.

Announcer: Barack Obama and his congressional allies’ stem cell attacks are simply not true. Leading news organizations call their attacks “misleading.” “Out of bounds.” “Manhandling the truth.” “Wrong.”

The truth? John McCain and his congressional allies fought FOR stem cell research. They stood up and said stem cell research was too important for you and your family.

Stem cell research will help unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It will allow scientists to explore treatment for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Stem cell research will help free families from the fear and devastation of illness.

Change is coming. McCain-Palin and congressional allies. The leadership and experience to change Washington and improve your health. Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.

McCain: I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

As for the McCain/RNC ads, their main flaw is in implying that running mate Sarah Palin’s position is in line with McCain’s.

The "original mavericks??" "Fighting for real change?" In Palin’s case, the language doesn’t apply, not on this topic. Palin opposes stem cell research. (On this point, the Obama ad is correct.) In a 2006 gubernatorial debate in Alaska, she said:

Palin (Nov. 2, 2006): [I]ts interesting that so many questions revolve around this centeredness I have for respecting life, and the potential of every human life, but no, stem-cell research would ultimately end in the destruction of life. I couldn’t support it.

Palin’s response to ABC News’ Charlie Gibson, in her first post-convention major media interview, was similar:

Gibson (Sept. 12): Embryonic stem cell research, John McCain has been supportive of it.

Palin: My personal opinion is we should not create human life, create an embryo and then destroy it for research, if there are other options out there. And thankfully, again, not only are there other options, but we’re getting closer and closer to finding a tremendous amount more of options, like, as I mentioned, the adult stem cell research.

But Palin has acknowledged more than once (including in the Gibson interview) that McCain’s ideas would prevail if the ticket is elected Nov. 4. And McCain hasn’t adjusted the stem cell language on his campaign Web site since Palin came on board.

 

It’s also true that the Republican platform calls for a ban on any research experimentation on human embryos, regardless of whether the embryos were scheduled for destruction or not:

Republican Platform, 2008: We call for a ban on human cloning and for a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes.

Despite all the sturm-und-drang that goes into cobbling together a party platform, the truth is that it doesn’t dictate a candidate’s positions or how he will govern if elected. In this set of ads, the misimpressions created by the Obama-Biden ad are far worse than the passing blip in the McCain-Palin/RNC spots. The Democrats’ ad should be shelved in a closet and hauled out only if McCain really does change his position on stem cell funding. So far, that’s not the case.

–-by Viveca Novak

 

Sources

California Republican Debate Transcript, MSNBC, 3 May 2007.

Addressing the Moral Concerns of Advanced Technology, McCain-Palin 2008 Web site, accessed 29 September 2008.

McCain Statement on Stem Cell Research
, United States Senate Web site of Sen. John McCain, 18 July 2006.

John McCain’s answers to the top 14 science questions facing America, Science Debate 2008 Web site, 15 Sept. 2008.

Wallsten, Peter and Bob Drogin. "McCain Seeks to Reassure Conservatives in Ohio," Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2008.

Alaska Gubernatorial Debate, C-Span Video Library, 2 Nov. 2006.

Young, Jeffrey. "Stem Cell Backers Doubt McCain’s Support," The Hill, 12 Aug. 2008.

Wereschagin, Mike. "Democratic Candidates Try to Reach Religious Voters," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 13 April 2008.

Youngman, Sam. "Religious right leader says McCain has ‘work to do’ to win evangelicals," The Hill, 12 March 2008.