John McCain once stood in strong support of human embryonic stem cell research. But his recent actions and ambivalent statements indicate he might not be a big fan anymore. This should be alarming to supporters of human embryonic stem cell research and begs the question: Does McCain the presidential candidate still feel the way he did when he was a “maverick” senator?
The discovery of human embryonic stem cells is arguably the most important biomedical discovery in the history of mankind. It will transform the way many diseases are treated and will save countless lives. But the current restrictions on this crucial area of research are threatening to subvert rational science with ideology in America. The continued political fight over embryonic stem cells is being waged with real human costs.
Many proponents of human embryonic stem cell research have assumed that the current Bush administration restrictions on embryonic stem cell research would be lifted under a McCain or an Obama presidency because both have supported such research as senators. As a result, this normally controversial topic has not been much discussed during the presidential debates or in the surrounding political dialogue.
And while Obama has continued to state clearly that he supports human embryonic stem cell research, McCain has seemed to waver in his support of such research recently. Therefore we must hope that if McCain is elected today, he will revert to his earlier strong support for embryonic stem cell research.
Recent requests by scientists and the media for McCain’s current official stance on use of human embryonic stem cells have fallen on deaf ears. To counter critics, McCain has launched a radio ad claiming that he supports stem cell research but, intentionally or unintentionally, the ad is vague on whether McCain’s support extends to human embryonic stem cells.
The term “stem cell,” though recognized by most Americans to mean embryonic stem cells, actually encompasses many different types of cells. It can pertain to amniotic fluid stem cells, adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells. While the recent radio ad does state that McCain supports stem cell research, it would be erroneous to presume that he supports human embryonic stem cell research, just as it would be erroneous to assume that McCain supports the dangerous sport of mixed martial arts (which he has made it known he does not) because he says he is a sports fan.
McCain’s ad magnifies one of the major concerns proponents of human embryonic stem cell research have had since Sarah Palin became McCain’s running mate. Palin has been a strong opponent of human embryonic stem cell research. Many wondered if McCain would let his running mate, more popular with the socially conservative wing of his party than the Arizona senator himself, take the lead on this issue. The radio ad does little to put the matter to rest, and it has instead instilled more uneasiness about whether McCain will actually support human embryonic stem cell research if elected president.
The official McCain-Palin campaign Web site says that McCain would support funding for amniotic fluid, adult stem cell and other types of promising research, but would not support studies that involve human embryonic stem cells. This should be alarming to proponents of human embryonic stem cell research because this statement is in line with the Republican platform, which continues to oppose human embryonic stem cell research.
McCain has touted his record as an independent who has repeatedly broken with his party, so it is possible that he may do so once again. But there is no indication that as president McCain will break with the party platform on this issue.
While he has not explicitly said that he does not support human embryonic stem cell research, McCain’s silence on the issue during the campaign has been deafening. Instead of being a “maverick” and taking a clear stand on human embryonic stem cell research even if it breaks from his party’s orthodoxy, McCain has seemingly decided to pander to all Americans on this important issue.
This is especially unfortunate, because one of McCain’s greatest “maverick” acts in the past was his support of human embryonic stem cell research, even as a majority of his party is opposed to it. McCain’s recent wavering on this issue now brings into serious question what the future holds for human embryonic stem cell research in America. Those who support the tremendous potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research should demand an answer from the senator: Will the controversy regarding public funding of human embryonic stem cells really be over under a President McCain, or will it just be overlooked?
Han Lee is a joint Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Genetics at the School of Medicine and MBA candidate at the School of Management.