Presidential candidates' position on stem cells

Although the road to November’s general election is likely to present a number of significant obstacles for both Senators McCain and Obama, the issue of stem cell research, and more specifically embryonic stem cell research, isn’t likely to play as prominent a role as it did during the 2004 and 2006 elections, due to the symmetry between the candidates’ views concerning the federal funding of stem cell research.

Senator Obama’s presidential campaign has been clear to emphasize its candidate’s long-term support for embryonic stem cell research, including his two Senate votes in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which if enacted would significantly expand the number of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines available to federally-funded researchers. Senator McCain has also expressed support for expanding federal funding of hESC research and, like Senator Obama, Senator McCain twice voted in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. However, unlike Senator Obama, who has continued to underscore the necessity of embryonic stem cell research “despite recent advances pointing to alternatives like adult stem cell and cord blood,” Senator McCain has explicitly called for “the increase of funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.”

Both candidates have indicated support for rescinding the Bush administration’s prohibition of federally funded research on “ineligible” hESC lines. However, the recent breakthroughs involving induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), re-programmed adult cells, which unlike embryonic stem cells do not necessitate destruction of the embryo, have contributed to increasing pressure on both candidates to modify their support in favor of increased federal resources for research on adult cells.

Despite their common support of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Senators McCain and Obama disagree on other issues directly tied to stem cell research, including the creation of human embryos for research purposes. While both Senators voted in favor of legislation which would restrict federal research dollars for use only on hESC lines derived from excess IVF embryos, Senator McCain supported congressional legislation that would make it a federal crime for researchers to create a human embryo solely for research purposes. In contrast, Senator Obama was a co-sponsor of the Human Cloning Ban Act of 2005 which, while prohibiting human cloning, explicitly sought to permit therapeutic cloning.

The Senators also diverge with regard to whether the creation of hybrid embryos for research should be banned in the US. While Senator McCain was a Senate co-sponsor to the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2007, which would prohibit attempts to create or obtain several different types of cells, embryos, or adult animals made by combining human and animal cells or DNA, Senator Obama has not indicated support for any existing legislation regulating this practice.

While an overall change in federal policy is highly likely under either a McCain or Obama administration, the extent to which either administration’s policy will ultimately prove beneficial to stem cell research in the US will remain tied to the many political pressures associated with a new administration and its burgeoning relationship with Congress. The next president will face a very complex political climate, exacerbated by a growing federal deficit and what many believe to be a looming recession. Despite support by both candidates for a less restrictive research policy governing stem cell research, the anticipated decrease in available research funds coupled with recent breakthroughs in the use of adult cells, is likely to play a significant role in influencing both Congressional and administration efforts to invest in all avenues of stem cell research.