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Stem Cell Research Emerges as Wedge Issue–for Democrats

Exit polls suggested scandals, the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with President Bush drove voters toward Democrats in mid-term elections, but stem cell research cropped up as a sleeper issue in several key races.

President Bush restricted funding for research on stem cells from human embryos in 2001, saying he opposed their destruction. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Missouri voters responded Tuesday by passing a constitutional amendment to protect stem cell research 51 percent to 49 percent.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Significantly, the issue spilled over into Missouri’s race for the U.S. Senate between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican incumbent Jim Talent. Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease, appeared in a television commercial asking voters to support McCaskill because she advocates stem-cell research. McCaskill won narrowly in an upset.
 
After broadcaster Rush Limbaugh famously commented that Fox was either off medication or acting to make his symptoms appear worse, the former “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” star went on to stump for other candidates around the country supporting stem cell research.
 
They included:
 
–Maryland Democratic Congressman Ben Cardin, who defeated state Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in a bid for an open Senate seat by 10 points.
 
–Democrat Jim Webb in his Virginia race for U.S. Senate. Webb won an initial vote count over incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen, but a recount is likely.
 
–Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter, whose daughter suffers from epilepsy. Perlmutter trounced Republican Rick O’Donnell in the 7th Congressional District race.
 
–Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who defeated two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in an expected win.
 
Governors running on a pro-stem cell research platform won election in Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
 
The stem-cell landslide is a setback for the Religious Right, which has long championed the issue as a pillar in building a so-called “culture of life.”
 
President Bush has praised the Southern Baptist Convention for supporting his stem cell policy in video addresses to the convention for each of the last four years. The president held a photo op in June 2005 for 21 families who adopted or gave up for adoption frozen embryos.
 
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who has compared medical research on embryos to experiments on humans done in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, used it as a rallying point in a series of meetings over the years with titles like “Justice Sunday” and “Stand for the Family.”
 
Dobson and other evangelicals criticized Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, for supporting federal funding for stem cell research in 2005.
 
Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren included “using unborn babies for stem-cell harvesting” as one of his five “non-negotiable” issues in choosing a candidate on the eve of the presidential election in 2004.
 
Warren signed the most recent Evangelicals and Catholics Together document–along with fellow Southern Baptists including Timothy George, David Dockery and David Gushee–which declares, “The direct and intentional taking of innocent human life in abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and embryonic research is rightly understood as murder.”
 
But recent debate indicates that Christians, and even Republican Christians, are not of one mind on the issue.
 
“There are a lot of Republicans who feel strongly that these cells in a petri dish are the equivalent of a person, and there are other Republicans who feel that these cells in a dish not implanted in a mother are not the equivalent of a person,” former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., recently told the Chicago Tribune.

Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest who watched a brother die of ALS, a disease of the nervous system also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, criticized the Christian right for using highly charged words like “human cloning” in stem cell debate in his recent book, Faith and Politics, saying such rhetoric misleads and confuses the public.
 
The process called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, replacing it with material from a skin, heart or nerve cell from the donor, and stimulating the cell to divide. After five or six days, stem cells can be extracted and used for research.
 
SCNT is also called “therapeutic” cloning. It differs from reproductive cloning, intended to create a human being by cloning embryos, which is opposed by groups including the Association of American Medical Colleges and NationalAcademy of the Sciences.
 
Robert Parham of the BaptistCenter for Ethics contends that most Christians aren’t motivated by divisive issues like stem cell research, long used by the Religious Right to polarize voters.
 
“The biblical witness speaks directly to a host of issues—earth care, economic justice, fair treatment of workers and care for the poor,” Parham said. “The biblical witness does not speak directly to stem-cell harvesting and cloning, since these are new, technology-driven issues.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
Also see:
Democrats Close ‘God Gap’ with RepublicansState Ballot Initiatives Take on Social Issues