In the buildup to this year’s election, Democrats sought to use the stem-cell debate to pressure Republican candidates. Press reports repeatedly asserted that stem-cell research could be a powerful “wedge issue” for the Democrats, and party leaders went out of their way to stress it on the stump. Rep. Nancy Pelosi even placed embryonic-stem-cell research funding on her to-do list for the first 100 hours of a Democratic House.
At first glance, the election results may seem to confirm the intuition that stem-cell research was an effective issue for Democrats. The race in which it played the most prominent role, the Missouri Senate race, ended with a narrow Democratic victory, and the human-cloning referendum in that state also passed by a (nearly identical) slim margin. Several other races in which stem cells played a role also went for the Democrats. But a closer look belies this simple reading of the outcomes. For all of their transformative potential, embryonic stem cells do not seem to turn voters into Democrats or non-voters into voters.
The Show-Me State The Missouri cloning initiative offers the clearest picture of stem-cell research as an election issue. The initiative sought to amend the state constitution to prevent state legislators from restricting human cloning for research purposes, and to exempt cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research from state laws that could restrict (or even just discourage) such work. For many months, through an extravagant $30 million campaign, supporters of the initiative sought to persuade Missouri’s voters that the proposed constitutional amendment actually prohibited human cloning and that the research in question would cure all manner of disease and disability. The emotional, if misleading, ads worked at first. Early on, support for the initiative reached 67 percent in one poll, and even as late as October polls found nearly 60-percent approval. But in the final stretch, opponents of the amendment, spending roughly a tenth the amount its supporters invested, began to highlight the dishonesty at the heart of the amendment campaign. Support for the proposed amendment plummeted. On Election Day, support for the amendment was 51 percent — enough to pass the measure, but enough also to show that even in the face of an overwhelming campaign of deception, voters can be moved by the facts about stem-cell research.
The final tally on the ballot initiative bears a striking resemblance to the results of the state’s Senate race, but the details of the vote suggest the relation between them was less than direct. According to exit polls (which, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt), more than 20 percent of Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill’s voters voted against the cloning amendment, while 20 percent of Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent’s supporters voted in favor of it. As a result, the final tally in the Senate race and in the amendment vote look very similar, but each slim majority consists of different voters. The fact that a fifth of Missourians on both sides of the issue voted for a Senate candidate who disagreed with them on the amendment begins to undermine the notion that stem-cell research moved the election in the Democrats’ favor.
The idea that stem-cell research moves independent voters is simply not supported by the Missouri data. After a year-long advertising bombardment and a ten to one funding advantage for amendment supporters, 55 percent of independent voters cast their vote for the amendment, while 45 percent opposed it. Independent voters did not break down differently on this subject than on others in the state. Men and women were also evenly split, despite the common contention that the stem-cell issue appeals especially to women voters.
A Dull Wedge Embryonic-stem-cell research does not seem to have been more significant in other races either. Back in March, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, traveled to New Jersey to launch a targeted campaign to use the stem-cell-funding debate against six Republicans in very tight races believed to be particularly vulnerable on the subject. The six were Michael Ferguson of New Jersey (in whose district Emanuel made his announcement), Dave Reichert of Washington, Peter Roskam of Illinois, Rick O’Donnell of Colorado, John Gard of Wisconsin, and Richard Pombo of California. On election night, Ferguson, Roskam, and Reichert won (although Reichert’s tight race may require a recount), while O’Donnell, Gard, and Pombo lost. In none of their races did stem-cell research appear to play a critical role. And while it is impossible to say whether the issue affected just the right tiny pocket of voters necessary to win in those races where Democrats won, there was no consistent pattern of votes shifting to the Democrats because of voters’ views on stem-cell research.
Indeed, surveys of public opinion have never supported the notion that stem-cell research is a significant issue in the minds of American voters or that it offers a significant advantage to Democrats. Unlike other “wedge issues,” stem cells never emerge when Americans are asked to volunteer what subjects are most important to them or should be most important to their leaders. And the results of polls that ask specifically about stem-cell research vary widely depending on the wording of the question, suggesting voters are not well informed and do not have hard-set opinions. Polls that intentionally avoid mentioning that embryonic-stem-cell research requires the destruction of human embryos or that exaggerate the medical potential of the work tend to produce strong support for federal funding of the research. Polls noting that human embryos must be destroyed, or discussing the existence of other non-controversial avenues of stem-cell science but playing down the medical potential of the research, tend to elicit firm opposition.
Polls that simply ask for voters’ views on embryonic-stem-cell research, without stressing either the destruction of embryos or the development of cures, tend to show the country fairly evenly divided. In late August, Newsweekasked registered voters, “Do you favor or oppose using federal tax dollars to fund medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos?” The question did not note that to “obtain” the cells you must destroy the embryo, but also did not claim the cells would cure every disease under the sun. Forty-eight percent supported funding, and 40 percent opposed it. When Newsweek had asked the identical question two years earlier, 50 percent had supported funding and 36 percent opposed it. In 2005, CBS asked a somewhat similar question and found that only 37 percent of Americans supported expanding federal support for the research beyond President Bush’s current funding policy. Forty-seven percent either disapproved of embryonic-stem-cell research or thought current levels of funding were sufficient.
What Lies Below But if most voters seem relatively indifferent to the issue, why have stem cells taken such a prominent place in the liberal political imagination? Some on the Left have surely bought the hype and think the future of medicine is on the line — and that, as Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado preposterously claims at every opportunity, embryonic stem cells will “cure diseases that affect 110 million Americans and their families.” But for many on the Left who realize that not every third American is dying of a degenerative illness and that the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells remains for now thoroughly speculative, the issue nonetheless resonates, and for reasons that run deep.
The issue offers, for one thing, a foil for the abortion debate. On abortion, the Left finds itself defending an increasingly abstract notion of freedom against (thanks to improving imaging technology) an increasingly concrete case that a human life is at stake. When it comes to stem-cell research, it is pro-lifers who find themselves making an abstract case for the humanity of a ball of cells, while their opponents can point to very concrete sick children and adults whom they claim could be helped by the destruction of embryos. It offers the Left a compassionate “health care” dimension to the case against the humanity of the unborn.
What is more, it allows the Left to claim the authority of science in its fight against conservatives. By depicting opposition to the destruction of nascent life for the sake of medical research as opposition to the progress of science, liberal embryonic-stem-cell advocates can position themselves where they most like to imagine themselves: as partisans of progress, struggling against reactionary and religious zealots who champion only ignorance and pain. Never mind that pro-lifers are defending the liberal ideal of equality by making a case grounded thoroughly in embryology, and never mind that the supposedly scientific case to the contrary amounts to “embryos are awfully small and don’t look like anyone I know.” For many on the Left, this is a fight between science and religion, and therefore the epitome of a progressive struggle.
Ironically, that has much to do with why the stem-cell debate has not become a wedge issue. As The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber noted in an insightful article this summer, the Left seeks to call upon the public’s trust in modern science against the moral qualms of the Right. But the public is actually quite uneasy about the ethical dilemmas of modern biotechnology, and seems to understand what many advocates on both sides do not: that the stem-cell debate is not just another incarnation of the struggle over abortion, but is rather the first real instance of a new kind of public-policy dispute over advances in human biotechnology. Most Americans view new developments in the field with a mix of hope and suspicion. At the very least, they can relate to the concerns of conservatives. That doesn’t mean most Americans agree with the pro-lifers on stem cells, but it means they understand them, and that makes it difficult for the Left to get much political mileage out of the stem-cell debate.
Looking Ahead Just as stem cells did not do much to affect the election, it also seems the election will not do much to change federal policy on stem cells. Rep. Nancy Pelosi has promised that, should she be elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, she would quickly bring the stem-cell funding measure vetoed by President Bush this summer up for another vote. President Bush would certainly veto it again. In July, the House fell 51 votes short of overriding the president’s veto. As of this writing (with several races still in recounts) it appears that fifteen of the 179 Republicans who supported the president’s veto were among those who lost their seats this year, but two of them were replaced by Democrats who share their opposition to embryo-destructive research. This leaves opponents of the president’s policy still roughly 38 votes short of a veto override.
But while the new Congress may not reshape the stem-cell debate in the next two years, developments in the field could well do so. Stem-cell scientists are increasingly exploring ways to produce cells with the capacities of embryonic stem cells but without requiring the destruction of embryos. These techniques, most notably somatic-cell reprogramming (by which an adult cell is brought to function like an embryonic stem cell without requiring an egg or an embryo), have seen serious advances in the past two years, and a number of labs are now pursuing them with vigor. They are still new and largely speculative, but so is embryonic-stem-cell research, and indeed these new techniques are further along in humans than the kind of cloning research Missourians just voted to protect.
These emerging techniques would allow the potential future uses of stem-cell science to be explored without doing harm to nascent human lives. This summer, President Bush expressed his support for the exploration and development of these new avenues of stem-cell science. “We must continue to explore these hopeful alternatives,” he said, “so we can advance the cause of scientific research while staying true to the ideals of a decent and humane society.” The U.S. Senate agreed, and voted unanimously to direct the National Institutes of Health to encourage such research. House Democrats unfortunately blocked that effort, preferring stem cells as a political issue over the potential for genuine and uncontroversial scientific advance.
These same Democrats will soon be in charge of the House of Representatives, and they still seem to believe both that the federal government should encourage the destruction of developing human lives for research, and that the fight to do so is a serious political winner for them. They are wrong on both counts.