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Stem Cell Research and the Elections

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Michael J. Fox, Rush Limbaugh, and the Changing Political Landscape

Recently, Michael J. Fox, a well known actor who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, appeared in a TV ad backing a pro stem cell research candidate, in a close race for a Senate seat.

The ad, which is both emotional and difficult to watch, shows the actor shaking uncontrollably and highlights his deteriorating health condition. Fox's goal is to persuade the electorate in Missouri that by voting for the candidate who supports stem cell research they offer suffering people like himself a hope for recovery.

According to MSNBC, the Michael J. Fox ad stirred a strong response from voters in Missouri, where a constitutional amendment on the ballot would legalize embryonic stem cell research. The race in Missouri is very close and the incumbent republican senator is facing a tough battle mainly because his opponent, a democrat, is pro stem cell research while he is not.

Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that stem cell research has become a focal point in heated Congressional races across the country (including New York, Florida, New Mexico and Virginia, among others) and democratic candidates are using their pro stance on this issue to gain ground against republicans, who in general oppose public funding for such research. What's noteworthy is the emergence of a powerful group that is backing the pro stem cell candidates and funding these multimillion-dollar TV ad campaigns.

Caplan indicates that this is not a small interest group pushing a narrow agenda, rather a well organized effort by lobbyists from a broad set of disease and disability organizations, representing people suffering from cancer, paralysis, heart disease and various other illnesses. These groups have pulled together and with their significant money raising ability they are helping pro stem cell research candidates win important votes.

Furthermore, by focusing their efforts on the ethical arguments in favor of public funding for embryonic stem cell research, it seems these interest groups are changing the minds of politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. To this point, Congress, which was strongly against stem cell research in 2002, recently came close to overriding President Bush's veto which blocked public funding for such research.

Therefore, through their access to significant funding, increasing lobbying power and sheer control of votes (as they represent a large constituency of people suffering from a broad set of diseases) these disease advocacy groups are putting stem cell research in the spot light and can significantly influence the outcome of elections on Nov. 7 and beyond.

Ana Lita, Ph.D., is Director of the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics, an affiliate of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

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