McCain on Stem Cells

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Several people have asked me where I got the information that John McCain has changed his view on stem cell research. His position used to be the same as that of former Senator Bill Frist, who opposes the creation of new stem cell lines except in cases where the embryo is already going to be destroyed. I have defended this position as consistent with pro-life principles about the full moral status of the fetus (and again here in a slightly different context), but many people who are pro-life do not agree. A lot of people think the issue should largely be defused now, however, since the discovery that embryonic-like stem cells can be developed without destroying embryos at all. I was under the impression that McCain was one of them.

I'm pretty sure one of the political blogs I read that usually has very reliable, up-to-date information about candidates had a mention in the last week or so of this change in McCain's view, but I can't remember where. What it said is that McCain had changed his mind in light of this new research and no longer supports research even on embryos that will already be destroyed, citing the new research as evidence that we probably will no longer need to do that to get enough embryos for the research that he still considers necessary. Since I couldn't find where I saw this, I spent some time looking around for recent statements by McCain on the issue. Here's what I came up with.

Gerald Bradley wrote in the National Review on January 18:

McCain has said -- it is true -- that he approved embryo-destructive research in the limited case of so-called "spares"-- those embryos "left-over" after couples have exhausted their interest in IVF. I disagree with him.In face-to-face conversation with McCain I said not only that such research was wrong, but that it would never be limited to "spares." I said that big biotech needed a far larger supply of research subjects than "spares" could provide. McCain asked to continue that conversation, to hear more. Now he realizes that there is no need to exploit "spare" embryos, in light of recent successes with adult cells. And so he has been telling South Carolinians over the last few days.
According to the Catholic News Agency, this was where he stood about a week later:

When he was asked how he reconciled his otherwise solid pro-life voting record with his support for experimentation on "surplus" embryos, Sen. McCain called his decision to back the research "a very agonizing and tough decision".

He continued, saying, "All I can say to you is that I went back and forth, back and forth on it and I came in on one of the toughest decisions I've ever had, in favor of that research. And one reason being very frankly is those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status." The senator, while standing firm on his decision added, "I understand how divisive this is among the pro-life community."

Referring to the recent break through in stem cell research which allows scientists to use skin cells to create stem cells, McCain said that, "I believe that skin stem cell research has every potential very soon of making that discussion academic.... Sam Brownback and others are very encouraged at this latest advance...."
Now I don't see that as necessarily conflicting with Bradley's first-hand report. All it does is give McCain's justification at the time and then his indication that he thinks it was the right decision. It doesn't say if he still holds it, just that he stands firm in his view that it was the right one and that in the future it will be a non-issue. It says nothing about what he thinks we ought to be doing right now. So I don't see how this is inconsistent with what Bradley reports hearing from McCain in person.

But then there's this:

When a woman asked whether promising new methods of stem cell research
would end McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research, he replied
firmly: "I have not changed my position yet."
So now I'm not sure what to think. He very clearly does not think his initial view was wrong at the time he made it, and he pretty obviously thinks that soon it will not be an issue and that we will not end up needing to use "spares" for this research. Bradley's impression was that he now no longer wants to fund use of "spares". He seems not to have fully made that decision at this point, though, unless he's being misquoted or taken out of context (which I wouldn't put past Dana Milbank but certainly wouldn't assume is true).

Whichever is the case, I don't have a problem with McCain's initial view, although I think it would be good if he backed off in the face of this new research. He does seem to be moving in that direction at the very least under the influence of his close friend Senator Sam Brownback. My suspicion is that he's in a transition at the moment. His website account of his view on stem cell research notably does not treat this particular issue at all:

Stem cell research offers tremendous hope for those suffering from a variety of deadly diseases - hope for both cures and life-extending treatments. However, the compassion to relieve suffering and to cure deadly disease cannot erode moral and ethical principles.

For this reason, John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. To that end, Senator McCain voted to ban the practice of "fetal farming," making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes. Furthermore, he voted to ban attempts to use or obtain human cells gestated in animals. Finally, John McCain strongly opposes human cloning and voted to ban the practice, and any related experimentation, under federal law.

As president, John McCain will strongly support 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.

Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.

I don't see anything there about using stem cells from embryos about to be destroyed. He says he hasn't changed his view yet, but I think he's probably at least suspended his view until further notice, even if he has not yet adopted Brownback's (while giving every indication that he probably will at some point).

2 Comments

It seems to me that he's trying to walk the tightrope of being pro-life, not just anti-abortion. There is a lot of confusion in the issues ... if the "spares" are going to be destroyed, anyway, is it not better to try to save other lives?

On the other hand, is that not a barbaric thing to say?

I can deal with a certain amount of wavering on that issue, simply for those reasons.

Although I'm a Huckabee guy (yes, still!), I am reasonably comfortable with Sen. McCain on abortion and life issues. I wish he was stronger or that it was more of a focus for him, but I think that he's at least on the right side when push comes to shove.

I don't see how it's any more barbaric than justifying anything that might in ideal circumstances be wrong but in a fallen world often has to be done and in fact is the morally right thing to do, e.g. killing in order to save lives, lying to an innocent in order to prevent an evil authority from finding out you're doing something against him that ought to be done.

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