McCain’s Ambiguous Stance on Stem Cells

Our guest blogger is Michael Rugnetta, a Fellows Assistant for the Progressive Bioethics Initiative at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The World Stem Cell Summit gets underway today in Madison, Wisconsin. The Summit brings together scientists and research advocates from all over the world to discuss the future of this revolutionary area of medical research. According to the Chicago Tribune, many of those assembled at the summit have misgivings about John McCain’s stance on the issue, which once seemed solid but has since come into question due to his ambiguous policy statements and his selection of the staunchly pro-life Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Indeed, John McCain’s tightrope act on stem cells is getting even more harrowing — and frustrating for anyone that wants a straight answer. McCain’s statement to Science Debate 2008 reveals that he would “support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.” Although it does not go into explicit detail, that statement suggests that a McCain administration would allow federal funding on stem cells that are derived from embryos left over from IVF clinics.

But McCain’s stem cell policy is more restrictive than it sounds. While supporting stem cell research generally, McCain opposes — and may attempt to criminalize — SCNT, which is a necessary and vital area of regenerative medicine.

During SCNT, a subject’s DNA is placed in an egg that has had its DNA removed, thereby creating a cloned embryo that can divide and produce genetically matched stem cells. McCain’s website, condemns the process: “John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purpose” and the Republican Party platform also calls for a ban on the “creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes.”

But McCain’s policy may criminalize SCNT research. In 2006, McCain voted to ban “fetal farming,” a horrific and universally condemned practice in which a pregnancy is deliberately initiated and terminated solely to obtain fetal tissue for research. Since then, McCain has used an expansive definition of “fetal farming” which, on its face, incorporates and criminalizes SCNT research.

On his website and in the Science Debate 2008 questionnaire, McCain correctly notes that the 2006 law bans research on fetal tissue from human pregnancy that was deliberately initiated for such research and outlaws research on tissue or cells from a human embryo that was gestated in a nonhuman animal. Yet McCain ignores that the regulations allows for the creation of embryos for research purposes (e.g.: SCNT), just as long as the embryos are not put in a human or nonhuman womb.  McCain’s selective interpretation could stifle critical medical research. The McCain campaign must clarify its understanding of fetal farming and articulate a policy toward SCNT or research on stem cells obtained from embryos leftover from IVF clinics. As it stands, McCain’s proposal remains shrouded in what seems like a carefully constructed cloud of ambiguity.