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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher November 20, 2011

U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson no longer champion of controversial research

When U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson gave remarks at a Vatican conference on adult stem cell research, he portrayed himself as a strong proponent of that work while seeming to brush aside embryonic stem cell work -- despite the fact that he previously championed both types of research.

The former Wisconsin governor, one of three Republicans seeking the 2012 GOP nomination, has fought criticism that he is not conservative enough.

Has Thompson changed his position on embryonic stem cell research, a practice a recent poll shows is opposed by far more Republicans than Democrats?

This is a question for our Flip-O-Meter, which determines not whether any move is good politics or good policy, but whether a political figure has changed stances on an issue.

The apparent shift in Thompson’s views was raised in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on Thompson’s Nov. 9, 2011 speech at the Vatican, which opposes embryonic research.

Before we examine Thompson’s stance on embryonic stem cells, we’ll note three points we’ve made in previous PolitiFact Wisconsin items about stem cells:

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  • Adult stem cells have the ability to treat some blood diseases and cancers, and maybe to one day even cure many diseases.
  • Research on adult stem cells, which come from the body, is older and generally not controversial. Research on embryonic stem cells is newer and controversial because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.
  • There is wide agreement among scientists that embryonic stem cells may in some ways be superior to adult stem cells and are deserving of more research.

Let’s start with Thompson’s early involvement with embryonic stem cell research.

August 2001: Kevin Keane, a longtime Thompson aide, tells the Journal Sentinel that Thompson had decided in 1998 to back embryonic stem cell research and was criticized by anti-abortion groups in 1999 for praising University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson in his "state of the state" message as governor.

The UW biologist was the first person to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells.

Keane also said Thompson, who left the governor’s office in early 2001 to become U.S. health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush, offered to develop and announce the Bush administration’s policy allowing federal money to be used for research on existing lines of embryonic stem cells.

September 2001: Thompson tells the Journal Sentinel "I was very active," in Bush's decision to allow that limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

"I've been active in stem cells ever since Jamie Thomson discovered them," Thompson said. "I've been very, very supportive of the science. I think it has great potential."

September 2008: Thompson recounts how, at an August 2001 lunch, he lobbied Bush to approve federal funding -- which was already supporting adult stem cell research -- for embryonic stem cell research.

"If it were not for that lunch I feel that research on those first lines of stem cells would not have taken place," he said at the World Stem Cell Summit in Madison.

Bush in August 2001 announced he would allow federal funds to be used for research on existing embryonic stem cell lines, "where the life-and-death decision has already been made," but not on new lines that would require the destruction of an embryo.

So, it’s clear that Thompson backed embryonic stem cell research as early as the late 1990s, and advocated for it as a Bush cabinet member starting in 2001.

So, how does that compare with Thompson’s remarks at the Vatican?

Speaking to reporters a day before the conference, Thompson was quoted as saying science had moved beyond destroying embryos.

"Why destroy an embryo?" he asked. "We are in a new science of adult stem cells that are pluripotent," or able to differentiate into other tissues.

(An important note here: Thompson is suggesting that a scientific advance with adult stem cells eliminates the need to use embryonic cells. It’s true that scientists can change body cells into an embryonic state. But as the Los Angeles Times reported a month before Thompson’s remarks, these pluripotent cells can raise a cancer risk and make it more difficult to safely treat diseases. Scientists also are not certain that these changed or reprogrammed cells will behave exactly the same as embryonic stem cells.)

Back to Thompson’s comments.

At the Vatican conference, he went further with his statements about embryonic stem cells, according to prepared remarks furnished by his campaign.

Thompson said: "I just don't believe that man can engineer something superior to what the good Lord has already given us. That's what I love about adult stem cells -- we're using the divine wisdom inside each of us to supercharge our bodies and wipe away disease. And as we do this, not a single human embryo is destroyed."

He also said "we can surely unite to return health to the hundreds of millions of people suffering needlessly throughout the world.  And we can do so without destroying one human life."

So, Thompson is emphasizing how treatment of disease can be done with adult stem cells and without destroying an embryo.

We asked Thompson campaign spokesman Darrin Schmitz whether Thompson has changed his position. Schmitz referred us to comments he made to the Journal Sentinel about Thompson’s speech at the Vatican. He said then that Thompson’s position is consistent with the policy he helped develop with Bush.

"As a pro-life Catholic, Tommy Thompson has always sought to protect new and existing life," Schmitz said. "Thompson fully supports adult stem cell research, which does not require the destruction of embryos and has yielded new advancements in regenerative therapies."

That’s a far cry from the strong support Thompson expressed for embryonic stem cell search while serving under Bush.

Our conclusion

Thompson has gone from being a leading advocate of embryonic stem cell research at the highest levels of government to arguing it is no longer necessary to destroy embryos in order to make scientific advancements with stem cells.

While he hasn’t come out against the embryonic work, he has suggested it is no longer necessary given advancements in adult stem cell research -- even though that is far from settled science.

PolitiFact defines a Half Flip as "a partial change of position or inconsistent statements." That’s how we rate Thompson.

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Tommy Thompson pushes for focus on adult stem cells," Nov. 9, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Thompson vocal as Bush made call on stem cell study," Sept. 9, 2001

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Is Thompson too centrist for GOP," Sept. 18, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Thompson offered to take flak," Aug. 10, 2001

Email interview, Tommy Thompson campaign spokesman Darrin Schmitz, Nov. 10, 2011

Tommy Thompson remarks, Vatican adult stem cell conference, Nov. 9, 2011

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Scott Walker says scientists agree that adult stem cell research holds greater promise than embryonic stem cell research," Oct. 21, 2010

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Democratic governor candidate Tom Barrett says opponent Scott Walker would ban stem cell research in Wisconsin," Oct. 10, 2010, "Thompson says he pushed Bush to fund stem cell research," Sept. 23, 2008

Associated Press, "Vatican, biotech firm host adult stem cell meeting," Nov. 8, 2011

Pro-Life Wisconsin, "Stem cell research/cloning" page

PR Newswire, "Public opinion on 15 controversial and divisive issues," Oct. 4, 2011

Associated Press, "Pope: No to embryonic stem cell research, no matter how beneficial it might be," Nov. 12, 2011

Los Angeles Times, "Scientists take key step in stem cell therapy," Oct. 6, 2011

The White House, news release on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, Aug. 9, 2001

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U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Thompson no longer champion of controversial research

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