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Election Debate Clouds Stem Cell Issue

Rhetoric Can Confuse Rather Than Inform

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.

"What's happening is people's views are being shaped by advertising. I don't think the public has a real clue what stem cells are. Physicians don't know," he tells WebMD.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Missouri, Paris says. A ballot initiative there asks voters to decide whether the state's constitution should allow embryonic stem cell research and guarantee Missourians access to any cures that arise from the research.

The initiative has sparked a bitter debate between pro-research and pro-life forces. Another commercial starring Fox ran there, as have dozens of other ads for and against the initiative and two Senate candidates in a neck-and-neck race.

Opponents say the initiative promotes human cloning and would coerce women into selling their eggs for research. Supporters argue that cloning is specifically ruled out and that the initiative will promote research into promising new cures.

The Fine Print

For the truth, voters would have to turn off the campaign ads and instead delve into the fine print. Stem cell research and cloning are two very different things.

The initiative's legal language bans cloning intended to reproduce a human but exempts a technique known as "therapeutic cloning."

Called somatic cell nuclear transfer, the technique involves extracting DNA from an adult cell and injecting it into a human egg. When the egg divides it produces stem cells genetically identical to the adult cell donor. That can provide an end run around the problem of immune rejection.

Tipton says anti-stem-cell forces are "desperate to confuse people" on the difference between stem cell research and various forms of cloning.

But Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life, defends all of her side's ads as accurate and accuses the other side of overhyping the promise of stem cell research.

"They're claiming these cures are going to happen and in fact they have not had one success," she says.

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