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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley September 24, 2008

Obama ad distorts McCain's stem cell position


Competing radio ads from the McCain and Obama campaigns in the last week may have left voters confused about where Sen. John McCain stands on stem cell research.

First, you had a McCain campaign ad highlighting McCain’s support for stem cell research. Then you had an Obama campaign ad that portrayed McCain as an opponent of stem cell research. Which one is wrong? For the most part, that dubious honor goes to the Obama ad.

Here’s what the Obama ad says:

"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."

At one time, McCain did oppose embryonic stem cell research. In February, 2000, McCain joined 19 other senators in asking the National Institutes of Health to withdraw its new proposals to fund federal embryonic-cell research. But then McCain changed his mind.

McCain explained why in an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press on July 15, 2001.

"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."

In June 2004, McCain was among 58 U.S. senators — most of them Democrats — who signed a letter urging President Bush to change his position and allow federal funding for scientific research on embryonic stem cells.

McCain has backed up that position with votes in the U.S. Senate, putting him in the distinct minority among his Republican colleagues.

On July 18, 2006, and again on April 11, 2007, McCain voted in favor of a bill that would allow the use of federal funds in research on embryonic stem cell lines derived from surplus embryos at in-vitro fertilization clinics. In both cases, McCain ran counter to the majority of Republicans, although both bills passed with overwhelming support from Democrats.

Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who also voted for the bills, noted that it was a position unpopular in Republican circles.

"The fact is John McCain has been a champion for stem cell research, which holds the promise of curing devastating diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease," Specter said in a statement released on Sept. 23, 2008. "John McCain bucked the majority of our party in standing strong with me in urging the Bush administration to lift restrictions on stem cell research, and last year voted to overturn the Bush policy."

So how does the Obama campaign back up its claim that McCain has stood in the way of — and opposed — stem cell research?

First, the Obama campaign accuses McCain of pandering to social conservatives at a private meeting in Ohio in June. The campaign cites a Los Angeles Times article which states 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."

But the article also notes that "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" points made by one of the country’s leading opponents of using embryonic stem cells.

The Obama campaign also notes that the recently adopted GOP platform calls for "a major expansion" of adult stem cell research but also "a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes." Again, however, this is a position at odds with McCain’s.

The Obama campaign also notes that McCain selected a vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who opposes embryonic stem cell research.

That’s accurate. In a 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate , Palin said stem cell research ran counter to her prolife position. "Stem cell research that would ultimately end in destruction of life," she said, "I couldn’t support."

In an interview that aired Sept. 12, ABC’s Charles Gibson asked Palin about embryonic stem cell research, given McCain’s support.

"You know, when you’re running for office, your life is an open book and you do owe it to Americans to talk about your personal opinion, which may end up being different than what the policy in an administration would be," Palin said. "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."

Palin’s clear opposition to embryonic research is actually our biggest problem with McCain’s ad on stem cell research, which begins by calling McCain and Palin "the original mavericks."

The ad states: "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."

By including Palin in the ad, it suggests she is in step with his position. And as we have noted, she is not. But it should be noted that when asked about the issue directly, Palin made clear that while her "personal opinion" would be in disagreement with a policy supporting embryonic stem cell research, she would respect a McCain-led administration's right to set such a policy.

Ultimately, the McCain ad is substantially more accurate than the one from the Obama camp.

We get that it may make some stem cell proponents nervous when McCain tells hard-line opponents to embryonic stem cell research that he is open to listening to their arguments; or that he chose a running mate who opposes embryonic stem cell research; or that the GOP platform calls for a ban on experimentation on human embryos for research purposes.

But McCain has not backed away from his position.

Asked in a Republican debate in California on May 3, 2007, what he thought about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, McCain was unequivocal.

"I believe that we need to fund this," McCain said. "This is a tough issue for those of us in the prolife 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 McCain has backed up his words with his vote twice in recent years, even when it meant challenging President Bush and a majority of his fellow Senate Republicans. That’s not standing in the way of, or opposing, stem cell research. We rate the Obama ad False.

Our Sources

Politico, Text of Obama Campaign "Stem Cell" Radio Ad , Sept. 23, 2008

YouTube, McCain Campaign "Stem Cell" Radio Ad , Sept. 12, 2008

The 2008 Republican Platform

Los Angeles Times, Senate strongly rejects Bush's curbs on stem-cell research , by Nicole Gaouette, April 12, 2007

Office of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 58 Senators Call on President Bush to Expand Policy That
Limits Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
, June 7, 2004

MSNBC, Transcript: California Republican debate , May 3, 2007

Los Angeles Times, McCain seeks to reassure conservatives in Ohio , by Peter Wallsten and Bob Drogin, June 27, 2008

Gavel to Gavel Alaska, 2006 Alaska Gubernatorial Debate (about 26 minutes into video), Nov. 2, 2006

The Hill, McCain launches pro-stem cells ad, by Jeffrey Young , Sept. 12, 2008 

ABC News, From the Fact Check Desk: Stem Cell Selling , by Jake Tapper, Sept. 23, 2008

The Boston Globe, Why McCain Changed on Use of Fetal Tissue, by Mary Leonard, Feb. 13, 2000

The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 GOP Senators Urge NIH Not to Finance Stem-Cell Research, by Jeffrey Brainard, Feb. 25, 2000

Congressional Quarterly, Embryonic Stem Cell Research, H.R. 810, Senate Roll Call Vote 206, July 18, 2006

Congressional Quarterly, Stem Cell Research, S. 5, Senate Roll Call Vote 127April 11, 2007

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Obama ad distorts McCain's stem cell position

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