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Rightwing Attacks on Stem Cell Research Advocate Michael J. Fox Spotlight One of Election 2006’s Most Heated Ballot Issues

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Parkinson’s sufferer and actor Michael J. Fox has been mocked by rightwing host Rush Limbaugh after he appeared in a Missouri television ad urging viewers to vote yes for stem cell research and for a Democratic Senate candidate over the Republican incumbent. We look at one of the most hotly contested issues in the 2006 elections with Arthur Caplan of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. [includes rush transcript]

In addition to electing candidates for the House and Senate, voters on November 7th will get to settle matters of public policy ranging from gay marriage to abortion and raising the minimum wage.

A near record number of ballot initiatives were proposed by citizens this year. Perhaps the most hotly contested issue this election season is embryonic stem cell research. Earlier this year, President Bush issued the first veto of his presidency in order to bar the expansion of federally funded stem cell research. Scientists have widely criticized Bush’s move to block the use of embryonic stem cells to find treatments or cures for many debilitating diseases. Polls show 70 percent of the country backs stem cell research.

One its most prominent backers is actor Michael J. Fox. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and went public with his condition seven years later. Last week, he appeared in a television campaign ad urging viewers to vote yes for stem cell research and for a Democratic Senate candidate.

  • Michael J. Fox TV commercial.

Soon after the TV ad ran, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh lashed out at Fox for his appearance in the ad where he is visibly shaking from the effects of the disease.

  • Rush Limbaugh.

Fox responded to Rush Limbaugh’s comments in an interview with Katie Couric on CBS Evening News

  • Michael J. Fox on CBS Evening News.

Arthur Caplan is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us now from the Center in Philadelphia.

  • Arthur Caplan. Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One of its most prominent backers is actor Michael J. Fox. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and went public with his condition seven years later. Last week, he appeared in a Missouri television ad, urging viewers to vote yes for stem cell research and for a Democratic Senate candidate over the Republican incumbent.

MICHAEL J. FOX: Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but George Bush and Michael Steel would put limits on the most promising stem cell research.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after the TV ad ran, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh lashed out at Fox for his appearance in the ad, where he is visibly shaking from the effects of the disease.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: He is moving all around and shaking, and it’s purely an act.

AMY GOODMAN: Rush Limbaugh, in addition to talking, was mocking the shaking of Michael J. Fox. Michael J. Fox commented on Limbaugh in an interview with Katie Couric on CBS Evening News.

MICHAEL J. FOX: A hundred million Americans that are even touched by incurable illness or know somebody who has incurable illness or love somebody who has incurable illness, it’s a hundred million Americans. And of most of the American population, 70% are in favor of this research, because they know what it means. But what happens is you get toward election time, and things fall away. And my hope was, by being that guy that people would say, “Hey, I know that guy,” that we’d, fourteen days off from an election, be talking about stem cells, and we are, and I am greatly gratified. And if that means taking a beating from that faction in the media, you know, that’s fine. You know, if bringing the message means the messenger gets roughed up a little bit, I’m happy to be that guy.

AMY GOODMAN: The stem cell issue is on ballot initiatives in a number of states next week. Arthur Caplan is director for the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us now from the Center in Philadelphia. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the initiatives — well, first talk about what happened with Michael J. Fox and Rush Limbaugh.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Well, basically Limbaugh accused Fox of overacting, of trying to get sympathy for support for stem cell research by pretending to be sicker than he is. But I have to say, it’s a charge that doesn’t stick. It’s certainly the case that Michael J. Fox has parkinsonism, and he’s had it for a long time. It’s also the case that people with that disease, sometimes their meds don’t control what’s going on with them, and in fact, if you take a little bit too much medicine to try and prevent your stiffening up or freezing, you may get more tremors, and I think that’s probably what happened to Fox. He was trying not to appear like he was shaking so much in making the ad and wound up being a little more shaky because of his medication. There’s nothing false about it. There’s nothing deceptive about it. He’s showing you what he has to deal with every day, and I don’t think the Limbaugh attacks got any traction at all. It’s very tough to score political points by going after a disabled person.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Arthur Caplan, can you talk about what Michael J. Fox was supporting, the number of initiatives around the country, and why this issue has become so significant in this country?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: It’s a lightning rod issue, first of all, Amy, because it’s not just scientists who want federal funds to do this research. There is a very powerful patient alliance that’s formed. If you take all the groups out there — parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer, infertility organizations, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury — these groups have all pulled together and said, “We want a federal ban that Bush has put in on stem cell research removed. We also want to see in different states, like Missouri and Maryland, state initiatives that support this.”

Now, they not only have clout in terms of being able to raise money, they have votes. You take all the people with those diseases, their families, their friends, you’ve got a bloc of votes there that’s very significant. So I think they are playing a key role in many parts of the country, because they have this power that they’ve put together to not only raise funds for stem cell research, but deliver the votes probably on November 7th.

AMY GOODMAN: Arthur Caplan, can you start off by describing what the controversy is around stem cell research, what President Bush originally decided years ago, the announcement he made, and take it from there?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Back in 2001, before September 11th, Bush held his first press conference out in the rose garden, and he said this: “I can’t support any research that involves the destruction of embryos.” Now, there were some stem cell lines made already. Stem cells had been discovered about six months before George Bush took office. He said, “Look, I can’t support any research with those cells. If they come from embryos, you’re going to have to destroy embryos to make them. So, no federal funds for new stem cell line creation. You can use the ones already in existence.” He said there were 60 such stem cell lines. There were probably no more than 15, so I just don’t think they’re useful anymore. But he said, “You can’t go forward here with federal funds. Private money? That’s okay. But no federal support.”

Since that time, Congress, the Republican congress, has been lobbied hard to overturn that ban, and they almost did as recently as the last congressional session. They came very close to overriding Bush’s, if you will, ban on federal support here.

So the issues boil down, Amy, to this: first, why embryonic stem cell research? Well, some parts of our bodies make stem cells. There are adult stem cells, and that’s when we heal ourselves. If we get a cut or bite our tongue, we know that blood is made, red blood cells all the time in our body, and bone marrow. That’s adult stem cells. But some parts of our body don’t heal when they’re injured: spinal cord, the part of the brain that makes the chemical dopamine that Michael J. Fox is losing now. The brain doesn’t regrow. Hearts, when you have a heart attack, heart muscle is damaged, it doesn’t fix itself. You become impaired, because you can’t grow back those cells. Scientists think if you can manipulate embryos and the cells that are drawn from them, you can make heart cells or nerve cells or possibly brain cells or other types of cells. So, the controversy is, is it worth sacrificing those embryos in order to try and grow these cells? We don’t have any other source for them.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Arthur Caplan, explain exactly where these embryos come from.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: So, the interesting thing here is that you can make embryos and do research with them and destroy them, but that isn’t the policy that is being really debated in the United States and the rest of the world. In infertility clinics, when people go to have children, they make embryos in dishes, and that’s exactly where — the same thing you do to make an embryo for stem cell research. A lot of these couples have more embryos than they’re going to be able to use. Some women get lucky, and the first time they start making embryos, they have a child. They don’t want the surplus of embryos. So there are about 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States alone. That is the source that most people are turning to and saying that’s where we should go to do the embryonic stem cell research.

There’s a little bit more controversy, because there has been some discussion, too, about cloning embryos, making an embryo from your own body cells. The idea behind that is your own body cells won’t be rejected if you make something from them. The problem here is a lot of people have a science fiction view that if you clone embryos, you’re going to make people. We haven’t had any success in cloning monkeys or primates, any type of great ape. I’m not sure we actually are cloneable, but because of the fear, if you will, from the movies and in popular culture, that cloning means making monsters, there’s opposition to that way to make the embryos, too. So either spare ones or cloning them, that becomes the two sources.

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument of those who are opposed, explain exactly where they stand. And if you could take this to the race where it’s become so hot, in Missouri, both in the race itself, as well as the initiative that’s on the ballot.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: So let me start with Missouri first and then work back. Missouri is an interesting state, because it has Senate candidates, Talent and McCaskill, who are split. McCaskill is supporting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research; Talent, the incumbent Republican, opposed. There’s also a state initiative on the ballot to permit embryonic stem cell research by constitutional amendment of the constitution of the state of Missouri. Missouri has become the focal point, in one sense, of this issue, because they are trying to move biotechnology in as an economic driver for the state, tens of millions of dollars spent to build new science institutes there. So, in a sense, they’re on the cutting edge of where embryonic stem cell research could go, but that investment is going to be for not, if they can’t get either federal or state funds through.

Now, backing it up, the opponents say, “Look, we can use adult stem cells. We don’t have to use embryonic. There are parts of the body that heal themselves. If we could take stem cells from skin or bone marrow, maybe we could manipulate that into becoming spinal cord cells or heart cells. So maybe we don’t need to do this.” And really the core of the opposition is, destroying embryos is just wrong, it’s murder. Many people believe — a minority of people, but nonetheless a significant minority — that an embryo is a person from the moment of conception, and nothing would justify killing it, even trying to do research that would benefit people in wheelchairs or kids with juvenile diabetes.

AMY GOODMAN: So what, then, do they say should happen to these embryos? They’re just destroyed. They’re thrown out.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: That’s the irony of this, and I have to say I think there’s an inconsistency here. If you are opposed to embryo destruction, as President Bush says he is, as Michael Steel says he is, the Senate candidate in Maryland, as Jim Talent says he is in Missouri, as many of the candidates say in these congressional races around the country — New York, New Mexico, Pennsylvania — they are not arguing to close infertility clinics. And every day in infertility clinics, surplus embryos are made, they’re added to the stockpile of those 400,000 frozen ones, and their fate ultimately will be to be destroyed. So unless you’re opposed to infertility programs and trying to let infertile couples have children, it doesn’t make any sense to say, “Over here, you can destroy embryos, but when it comes to research, you can’t.”

AMY GOODMAN: It’s become a very hot issue in 2006. Nancy Reagan has weighed in in the past. She has expressed her support for stem cell research. How significant is that?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Very significant. Basically, on the Republican side of the street, I think you’re seeing a real wedge issue here that the Democrats can take advantage of. There are libertarian Republicans, basically get-off-my-back kind of Republicans, who say, “I don’t want the federal government telling me what I can do or not do in the area of research. It’s not their business.” And this view that embryos are people from the moment of conception is not one that they hold. Then there are the social conservatives or the so-called values conservatives: they are very strong proponents of the view that we have to respect all life, including embryonic life. But when Nancy Reagan speaks out on this, she’s driving a wedge, if you will, between the more libertarian end of the party and the social conservative, religious right part of the party.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you think will happen in these midterm elections around these ballot initiatives on stem cell research?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: I think in a bunch of these states we’re going to see the stem cell issue make a significant difference and tip these elections toward supporters of stem cell research. As I said, this isn’t just a bring-out-money-to-support-initiatives kind of movement. When the patient groups rally, they can deliver votes. So I’m looking at crucial swing districts, suburbs of Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, where there are divisions between the candidates over stem cell research, governorship of Wisconsin, the Missouri and Maryland Senate races. I think we’re going to see it make a difference here.

Moreover, Amy, I think what’s going to happen is, as the parties realize these voters will turn out on this issue, these groups may realize that they are now a bloc and that they can work together to achieve reform in healthcare. They may be the start of the movement to get more national health insurance reform down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Arthur Caplan, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you.

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