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Election Debate Clouds Stem Cell Issue

Rhetoric Can Confuse Rather Than Inform
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 6, 2006 -- Tuesday's election will be the first nationwide voting since President Bush's veto in July of a bill expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Candidates' stances on the research are weighing heavily in two key races as the political parties battle for control of the House and Senate in Washington.

But the barrage of campaign ads tends to hide more about stem cell research than it reveals. Ethicists and advocates alike warn that complex scientific issues are nearly invisible in the glare of partisan politics and political sound bites.

What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are found in early human embryos within a few days of fertilization. Scientists are interested in them because of their ability to grow into any tissue in the body. That could make them good candidates in the future for curing a range of diseases, such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

Adult stem cells avoid possible ethical pitfalls of embryonic cells, which require an embryo's destruction for harvesting. But scientists backing embryonic research say that embryonic cells are far more versatile than adult cells.

Stem cell research will probably not be the most important issue in most voters' minds on Tuesday, says James G. Gimpel, PhD, a professor of government at the University of Maryland.

"For those people for whom this is the decisive issue, they would have made up their opinion long ago," he says.

But that hasn't stopped stem cells from becoming a major campaign issue in the final weeks of Maryland's Senate race. Actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, recently starred in a commercial telling voters that Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the Republican nominee for the seat, opposes stem cell research.

Only a few days later, Steele's campaign released a commercial of its own. Now TV and radio waves are carrying a testimonial from Steele's sister, Dr. Monica Turner, a multiple sclerosis patient, attacking Fox and Rep. Ben Cardin, Steele's Democratic opponent.

"There's something you should know about Michael Steele. He does support stem cell research," Turner states in the commercial.

What the ad doesn't say is at the heart of one of the most confusing parts of the stem cell debate.

Steele has said he supports research on stem cells derived from adult sources like bone marrow. But he backed Bush's July veto because he opposes embryonic research that requires the destruction of embryos to gain stem cells.

"No question that politicians on both sides of the issue articulate it incorrectly," says Sean Tipton,

Ads Create Confusion

The Rev. John J. Paris, a professor of bioethics at Boston College and a Jesuit priest, says that while the majority of the public favors embryonic research, ads like Fox's and Steele's have done little to inform voters about the real issues surrounding stem cells.

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