Political Hay

McCain: Still Awful on Stem Cells

No, "skin cells" won't make the issue go away.

By 8.22.08

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The answers that Senators Barack Obama and John McCain gave to Saddleback Church's pastor Rick Warren last weekend were very telling. Evidently, pesky pro-lifers have had some impact, though we are not satisfied with either candidate just yet.

When Warren asked, "At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?" Senator Obama hemmed and hawed about science and theology, saying that certainty was "above my pay grade."

In contrast, McCain answered without missing a beat. He said, "At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies."

This is the same language used by John McCain 2008 strategists to target the largest bloc of religious voters -- Catholics. Since Catholics amount to about 25 percent of the registered voting population, McCain's campaign established the National Catholics for McCain Committee, co-chaired by Senator Sam Brownback and former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating.

However, many Catholics are upset by McCain's pro-life claims because he is no better than Obama on embryonic stem cell research. McCain voted for it both times bills were passed by Congress. The only reason that our federal tax dollars do not currently fund ESCR is because President George W. Bush vetoed those bills.

Obama told Warren that the ESCR legislation vetoed by President Bush was supposed to mandate that "you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded" from IVF labs and "I think that is a legitimate moral approach to take."

Now if McCain believes that human rights begin at conception, killing embryos for their stem cells should be out of the question, right? So how does he rationalize that?

ONE McCAIN ADVISER told me that, like Obama, McCain and some of his campaign managers think that human embryonic stem cell research is acceptable because the "extra embryos" created in labs "shouldn't be wasted."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a possible pick as McCain's running mate who proclaims himself pro-life, also subscribes to the let's-use-the-extra-embryos tactic.

But medical doctor and senior stem cell scientist James Sherley of Boston Biomedical Research Institute has rightly said, "No matter how a single-celled human embryo comes into existence, naturally or artificially, it constitutes a person, a nascent person, but a person nonetheless.

"There is no scientific basis for discounting the humanity of a person at any time during her or his development. Yet, this is exactly what our government and society condone in the case of embryonic and prenatal persons."

McCain's answer to Warren was more nuanced. He said, "For those of us in the pro-life community, this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma. We're also taught other obligations that we have as well."

He told Warren that while he had "come down on the side of stem cell research" he was "wildly optimistic that skin cell research which is coming more and more into focus and practicability will make this debate an economic one."

LIKE MANY AMERICANS, McCain appears confused about stem cell science. In fact, embryos are not the only source of stem cells.

All of us generate our own stem cells and patients have been treated successfully with their own cells, so it is unnecessary to kill humans in the embryonic stage of development. There are also success stories on the use of stem cells from umbilical cords. Both are confusingly classified as "adult stem cells."

With his "skin cells" reference, McCain was pointing to the experiments by scientists who had "reprogrammed" adult skin cells into "embryo-like" stem cells and released articles on their findings last November.

One scientist was Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan. The other was James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, who some call "the father of embryonic research."

While many were celebrating these supposed breakthroughs, Theresa Deisher, scientist and founding researcher of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, revealed several ethical problems in the March-April 2008 issue of Celebrate Life. Deisher wrote that kidney cells from an electively-aborted human fetus were among the ingredients used by both researchers.

And while Deisher explained that there are moral and ethical options to obtain those same reprogramming results, she still questioned the final outcome. After all, "[r]eprogrammed adult cells display this embryonic characteristic: they form fatal tumors in adults."

James Sherley also emphasized that embryonic stem cells are incompatible with anyone other than the embryonic persons to whom they belong. He said, "While embryonic stem cell research advocates argue that we should make use of 'extra embryos,' the bitter, bitter irony is that human embryonic stem cells cannot be used at all because they form tumors and lack essential properties needed to maintain mature tissues."

He called such research a "waste of taxpayer dollars" and reminded that it is "equivalent to abortion because, in both cases, innocent human beings are killed."

AT THE END OF JULY, Catholics for McCain held a conference call, conducted by Keating and McCain's Catholic outreach director, Josh Lynch.

In the first question, I said that Catholics and others deserved an explanation for certain claims that are being made by the McCain campaign, citing McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research. Others pressed the same issue.

Keating told us that the pro-life claim applies only to Sen. McCain's record against abortion. Keating and Lynch urged us to compare McCain's record to Obama's pro-abortion record.

They said that we can count on McCain to nominate good judges, and Keating thinks the embryonic stem cell issue "is going to go away" because of "the skin cell" technology, which is exactly how McCain's answers played out at Saddleback.

Despite Gov. Keating's hopes, the embryonic stem cell research agenda has taken on a life of its own. Congress is poised to pass the same bill again. Thus, Lynch pointed out that John McCain is a cosponsor of the U.S. Senate's proposed Human Cloning Prohibition Act and he invited Catholics to e-mail their concerns to the campaign.

At the end of the conference, Keating said, "We need your guidance and advice. I know there's disagreement -- we had several callers who were concerned about McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research. I'm against it. I'm not panicking on the subject because I think John is warm and wonderful and humble and open and right down the line on the rights of the vulnerable. I think we'll get there."

Well, here we are now. Scientists, physicians and pro-life leaders have been reminding McCain's campaign advisers of stem cell realities for months, but his Saddleback answers indicate, at best, halting progress.

In his Catholic outreach pamphlet, McCain claims to be "a man of compassion who fights for human rights worldwide" and "a pro-life Reagan conservative ready to lead America as president on day one."

Unless he commits to vetoing funding for embryonic stem cell research, how can we believe those claims or his promise to "cut taxes and eliminate all wasteful spending"?

Anita Crane is a freelance writer and editor. She is a former senior editor of the national pro-life magazine Celebrate Life.

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