Politics & Policy

Doc Hollywood on the Campaign Trail

What Michael J. Fox learned while on Spin City.

First it was Missouri, today it is Maryland. Michael J. Fox has entered the political fray in both states’ hotly contested Senate races, taping commercials for the Democrats running there, Claire McCaskill and Ben Cardin, respectively. In the ads, while touting his candidates’ support for “stem-cell research,” Fox by implication furthers the most prevalent myth about stem-cell research: that those who oppose embryo-destroying research are against stem-cell research.

In the Maryland commercial for Cardin, Fox, the actor (he played teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties) who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, takes aim at both Republican Lieutenant Governor (and Republican nominee for Senate) Michael Steele and George W. Bush. Fox says:

Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

But George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research.

Fortunately, Marylanders have a chance to vote for Ben Cardin.

Cardin fully supports life-saving stem cell research. It’s why I support Ben Cardin.

And with so much at stake, I respectfully ask you to do the same.

Even in an emotionally wrenching package — you see Fox very visibly suffering from his disease as he unnervily jerks back and forth — these claims are familiar and disingenuous. George W. Bush, Jim Talent, Mitt Romney … any politician who has taken any kind of  lead in opposing embryonic-stem-cell research (and cloning, which is rarely spoken of, but is a necessary element of much of what embryonic-stem-cell advocates want to do) is all too often portrayed as being against stem-cell research — and hope. In truth, President Bush was the first president of the United States to authorize federal funding for any embryonic-stem-cell research. In correcting a writer from The New Republic back in 2004, my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, “Actually, Bush provided funding for the first time. Congress had essentially banned funding, the Clinton administration issued preliminary regulations getting around the ban, and then Bush imposed a policy of funding with restrictions.”

Further, embryonic-stem-cell research is currently legal and completely unrestricted in both Maryland and Missouri, and in the vast majority of other states. It is largely personal and institutional ethics that keeps scientists from cloning research. The debate we’re having is almost always about government funding or radical measures like the one currently on the ballot in Missouri (Amendment 2), which would write a right to cloning into the state constitution.

Additionally, embryo-destroying stem-cell research is by no means the only or the most promising stem-cell research. Alternative research — including cord-blood research and adult-stem-cell research — is already working, unlike the embryonic-stem-cell research we’re all focused on as if it were a proven cure-all. As Princeton professor Robert P. George, who sits on the president’s bioethics commission, tells National Review Online:

the ads exaggerate the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells beyond anything that Michael J. Fox or anyone else has reasonable grounds to believe they can be used to accomplish.  Adult stem cells — stem cells that can be obtained harmlessly from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, fat, and other sources — have actually been used successfully to treat people.  They have been used to improve people’s lives.  Embryonic stem cells have not helped anyone.  No one knows when, if ever, embryonic cells will be used in therapies at all.  Indeed, not a single embryonic-stem-cell-based therapy is even in stage one of clinical trials.  That is because the tendency of embryonic stem cells to produce tumors makes it unethical to use them in human beings — even in experimental treatments.  By contrast, there are more than 1,000 adult-stem-cell-based therapies in clinical trials.  In his ads, Michael J. Fox hides these crucial facts, thus creating an appallingly false impression and slandering candidates against whom the ads are directed.”

Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum, a candidate in another hot race this season, is also  – like Bush and Steele and Talent — pro-stem-cell research, but opposed to embryo-destroying research. In the Senate earlier this year, Santorum teamed up with his pro-choice, very pro-embryonic-stem-cell-research Pennsylvania colleague Arlen Specter to sponsor a bill that would fund research to find cells with embryo-like qualities. At the time, Santorum explained:

While there are different and passionate opinions on stem cell research, Senator Specter and I have come to an agreement that we can intensify pluripotent stem cell research without creating or destroying human embryos for research purposes. We are hopeful that additional funding in this area will open the door to significant advances in the medical and scientific communities.

Stem-cell research, while dramatically divisive — largely thanks to misleading emotional messages (i.e., the Fox commercials) — actually offers potentially fruitful opportunities for coalition building. That is, unless you’re of the embryos-or-nothing position. Unfortunately, instead of embracing non-controversial research earlier this year, Democratic Leader (soon to be Senate Majority Leader?) Harry Reid dismissed the Santorum efforts as “meaningless.” Proponents of embryonic-stem-cell research — those we’re supposed to believe really care about sick people — rejected, not for the first time, a chance to embrace non-ethically troublesome research; instead they said We only want embryonic-stem-cell research.

Political commercials are not known for their honesty or subtlety, but these Fox ads hit home in a particularly painful way; their blatant dishonesty does a terrible disservice to those whom they pretend to want to help and malignantly contribute to an already confusing and frustrating debate about basic issues of life and death. Claire McCaskill, Ben Cardin, and anyone else who chooses to play on voters’ emotions with these misleading ads (Fox has filmed one for Democrat Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, and he will be appearing at events for Democrats Sen. Robert Menendez and Tammy Duckworth, who is running for the House from Illinois, according to the Washington Post) ought to be ashamed of themselves.

As Professor George elucidates:

I have great sympathy for Mr. Fox and other victims of Parkinson’s and similarly horrible diseases. I understand how desperately he hopes for a cure for what afflicts him and so many others.  I have seen members of my own family suffer, and I too want to hasten the day when the great engine of science conquers the diseases that cause so much suffering.  But the fact that Mr. Fox is a victim is not a license for him to mislead or manipulate the public. The truth — the whole truth — must be told.  Those politicians who, for political gain, have run these ads in which the truth is distorted and people are misled deserve the most severe of reprimands.  Win or lose, they have brought upon themselves disgrace.”

 — Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

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