McCain and Obama: The Same on ESCR?

McCain and Obama: The Same on ESCR? September 29, 2008

In one sense the answer to the question is obviously yes. Both Obama and McCain favor federal funding for embryo-destroying research, and so far as I call tell there is no daylight between them on the subject of what types of research they would like to subsidize. And while McCain has occasionally made noises to the effect that he might possibly drop his support for ESCR, he hasn’t done so yet. Politics, however, is about not only the positions that one holds but about how those positions will be implemented. And on that score there is a very clear difference between Obama and McCain when it comes to federal funding for embryo-destroying research.

Federal funding for embryo-destroying research can come about in one of two ways. It could be enacted by congress, either with the President’s support or over his veto, or it could be enacted via executive order. Senator Obama has pledged that, if elected, he would immediately sign an executive order granting funding for embryo-destroying research. McCain has not made such a commitment, and the view among ESCR’s main supporters in the congress seems to be that he would wait for congress to pass a bill rather than acting on his own.

This difference is potentially decisive. If a bill funding embryo-destroying research has to make it through congress, there will be ample opportunities for funding opponents to offer alternatives, present evidence as to the ineffectiveness of ESCR and/or the viability of alternatives, and to use procedural devices such as the filibuster to prevent its passage. Such tactics provide the possibility, though not the certainty, that federal funding for ESCR would never even make it to McCain’s desk. Should Obama simply sign such funding into law via executive fiat, by contrast, there will be no debate, no chance to present alternatives or sway moderates. It will all be over and done with in a day.

To say that a McCain presidency would be preferable on the ESCR issue than an Obama presidency is not to deny the awfulness of McCain’s own views on the matter. A choice between a 80% chance that federal funding for embryo-destroying research and a 100% chance of federal funding for embryo-destroying research is not a good one by any means. Nonetheless, there is a difference.

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  • Policraticus

    This difference is potentially decisive.

    Potentially, yes. Probably, no. Congress is itching to pass that bill again, as it has already done twice despite knowing that President Bush would veto it. McCain voted for funding both of these times, so the question is not whether or not Congress will pass that bill (it will), but whether or not McCain would sign it. I think that if Palin and McCain are taken seriously on their plea for us to look at his track record on all issues, then we see quite plainly that his support is with funding of ESCR. In this regard, Obama and McCain would employ a different method to arrive at the same outcome.

  • jeremy

    Nope, if one pledges to promote ESCR through executive orders in addition to congressional legislation, I would call that a difference worth noting.

  • Policraticus

    Nope, if one pledges to promote ESCR through executive orders in addition to congressional legislation, I would call that a difference worth noting.

    The question was not whether this difference is “worth noting” (of course it is), but whether the difference is “decisive.” Same probable outcome by means of different approach.

  • blackadderiv

    Potentially, yes. Probably, no. Congress is itching to pass that bill again, as it has already done twice despite knowing that President Bush would veto it.

    True. However, at the time of each of these votes, the case that there were viable alternate means of research that didn’t involve the destruction of embryos was not as strong as it is now (and the case is only going to grow stronger as time goes on). If you compare Democratic rhetoric on the issue in the 2004 campaign with Democratic rhetoric on the issue now, you can see that they sense this.

  • jeremy

    By nature, if a difference is ‘worth noting’, then the difference exists, and therefore could influence a decision.
    I don’t accept your premise that the outcome between legislative action congress, and executive orders by an ‘enthusiastic’ president will be substantially the same.

  • JB

    If both result in the funding for ESCR what is the difference?

  • jeremy

    The level and nature of the funding. How quickly that funding takes place. What guidelines are attached to the funding.

  • jeremy

    Whether the funding allows or encourages the creation of new embryos would be a biggy.

  • Why the unique focus on public funding? If we had the same standard on abortion, Joe Biden would be a pro-life hero!

  • Kurt

    John McCain and his Congressional allies fought FOR stem cell research. They stood up and said stem cell research was too important for you and your family. Stem cell research will help unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It will allow scientists to explore treatment for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Stem cell research will help free families from the fear and devastation of illness. Change is coming. McCain-Palin and Congressional allies. The leadership and experience to change Washington and improve your health. Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.” McCAIN: “I’m John McCain and I approve this message”

  • jeremy

    Because public funding is the issue at hand.

  • “Why the unique focus on public funding?”

    Public funding makes us more directly complicit. This is why we don’t want our taxes paying for abortions, among other things.

  • Zach: I agree. Public funding of abortion/ ESCR is exactly where politcians are directly complicit. But it’s also not where most of the action is.

  • jeremy

    I thought the current action for ESCR was public funding? Is there rampant ESCR research going on that doesn’t currently involve public funding?

  • Katerina

    If both result in the funding for ESCR what is the difference?

    Exactly. Sounds like an excuse to me to make McCain sound better. This bill will be signed by either candidate no matter what. The question is how comfortable one is as a Catholic voting for either candidate knowing that it would be signed regardless of timing or who it is that signs it.

  • jeremy

    Doesn’t the promise to enact ESCR funding by executive fiat make you think this issue goes a little beyond making Mr McCain not look quite as bad?

  • The difference between Obama and McCain on ESCR are like the differences between Obama and Biden on abortion. The latter is slightly better than the former in both cases, but that’s hardly anything to brag about.

  • Feddie: yes, that is an intellectually honest position.

  • The public-private distinction is crucial, for this was how Bush made his judgment back in 2000. His policy was not to publicly fund the destruction of human embryos, but it was permissible to use such funds to “support research on stem cells obtained by the privately funded destruction of “excess” embryos from fertility clinic.” the USCCB opposed this (

    There are a number of moral issues, here, of course. How widespread is the privately-funded destruction of embryos? As the UCSSB notes: “the fact that the embryos were destroyed with private funds does not solve the moral problem.” Moreover: “research on cell lines already established by destroying human embryos does not avoid moral complicity in such destruction.”

    And what about thw wanton destruction of embryos in fertility clinics? Here’s Michael Kinsley:

    “if embryos are human beings, the routine practices of fertility clinics are far worse—both in numbers and in criminal intent—than stem-cell research. And yet no one objects, or objects very loudly. President Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics in his first speech announcing restrictions on stem cells.”

  • jeremy

    You never said why the private/public distinction was important for ESCR, or how that would affect the two candidates positions. You did introduce fertility clinics, to which I whole heartedly support the USCCB statement on the matter. However, since the two major parties don’t consider this a political issue, there isn’t much that can be done about it during this election.

  • jeremy

    Just a thought – at their heart, both abortion and fertility clinics affirm the parent-child bond. Abortion by severing that bond, and fertility clinics by trying to achieve that bond. I think one of the reasons that ESCR strikes us as intrinsicly wrong above and beyond fertility clinics is that ESCR denies the parent-child bond. Indeed, ESCR treats the child as a biological entity to be harvested.

  • David Nickol

    The public-private distinction is crucial, for this was how Bush made his judgment back in 2000.

    I remember someone saying that Bush’s compromise on stem-cell research could be regarded as Solomonic if Solomon had actually cut the baby in half.

    Michael Sandel, has pointed out how strange it is to deem something morally offensive and deny it public funding while letting it continue in the private sector:

    A further reason to be skeptical of the notion that blastocysts are persons is to notice that many who invoke it do not embrace its full implications. President Bush is a case in point. In 2001, he announced a policy that restricted federal funding to already existing stem cell lines, so that no taxpayer funds would encourage or support the destruction of embryos. And in 2006, he vetoed a bill that would have funded new embryonic stem cell research, saying that he did not want to support “the taking of innocent human life.”

    But it is a striking feature of the president’s position that, while restricting the funding of embryonic stem cell research, he has made no effort to ban it. To adapt a slogan from the Clinton administration, the Bush policy might be summarized as “don’t fund, don’t ban.” But this policy is at odds with the notion that embryos are human beings.

    If harvesting stem cells from a blastocyst were truly on a par with harvesting organs from a baby, then the morally responsible policy would be to ban it, not merely deny it federal funding. If some doctors made a practice of killing children to get organs for transplantation, no one would take the position that the infanticide should be ineligible for federal funding but allowed to continue in the private sector. In fact, if we were persuaded that embryonic stem cell research were tantamount to infanticide, we would not only ban it but treat it as a grisly form of murder and subject scientists who performed it to criminal punishment.

  • jeremy

    Indeed, there was a political compromise, not the first, and not the last. I don’t think anybody here would want to say that the compromise was optimal. Fortunately with the recent rapid advances of adult stem cell research and treatments, I am hopeful that we can soon put the ESCR debate to bed.

  • David Nickol


    But the same principles underlie Catholic opposition to both abortion and stem-cell research. Are pro-life Catholics willing to make a political compromise on abortion? I don’t think so. But I don’t recall a firestorm over Bush’s stem-cell compromise.

    Perhaps the reason is, as Michael Sandel says in his book The Case Against Perfection, that people don’t believe fertilized eggs and very early embryos are really human beings. Some people claim to believe it, but if they really did, they would be trying to shut down fertility clinics with the same fervor as they are trying to criminalize abortion.

  • digbydolben

    Question: Where do the embryos for “stem cell research” come from? Is anybody–are the government?–producing foetuses for the explicit purpose of harvesting their organs for stem-cell research?

    Possible Answer: Almost all the stem cells for research come from the zygotes produced in “fertility clinics.” Whenever a rich, privileged woman and her husband, hell-bent and determined not to adopt, but to have something with their own DNA in it, pay $10-20,000.OO to some medical moral idiot for the production of 20-40 zygotes in a petri dish, ONLY ONE IS CHOSEN FOR “IMPLANTATION.”

    Question: Where do the other zygotes go?

    Possible–no, LIKELY–Answer: To the “reserch labs.” SOLD to them, I might add.

    Question: Have you ever heard the Catholic Church offer to “funeralize” all those zygotes–or even the embryos, after they been “implanted”?

    Answer: Are you kidding? Spend money on THAT?

    Question: Why does the “moral responsibility” for stem-cell research always fall upon politicians and legislators, in the sermonizing of Holy Mother Church in America?

    Answer: They’re a much easier target than the depraved–and often CATHOLIC–American upper middle classes and their medical friends. Who wants to hear a sermon in church about the moral responsibility to adopt and forsake the “wonders of medical science” in the interest of preserving the “whole cloth” of life?

    Until the Catholic Church targets the real source of this moral degeneracy, which is the pagan quest by this culture to achieve immortality through the prolongation of life or the replication of one’s genes–NO MATTER WHAT THE COST–I believe I’ll treat all this palaver about “stem cell research” as the hypocrisy it is.

  • jeremy

    My understanding is that there was resistance to IVF back when IVF was first introduced. There were concerns that it was a slippery slope to the commodification of human life. At the time, abortion was not rampant and no one was clamoring to create nascent human life for the purposes of harvesting stem cells.

    To address the hypocrisy claims: It is not being a hypocrite to not tilt at a windmill. Since there is no political momentum to ban IVF, it is pointless to refuse to ban pubilc funding of ESCR until political moment builds to ban IVF. Especially because such political momentum isn’t even on the radar.

  • David Nickol

    At the time, abortion was not rampant and no one was clamoring to create nascent human life for the purposes of harvesting stem cells.

    Year Abortions
    1973 744,600
    1974 898,600
    1975 1,034,200
    1976 1,179,300
    1977 1,316,700
    1978 1,409,600

    On July 25, 1978, Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first successful “test-tube” baby was born in Great Britain.

  • Jeremy

    Research into IVF was occuring before 1973.

  • Jeremy

    According to Wikipedia, the first pregnancy was achieved in 1973.

  • 1superdave

    The whole debate is not about federal funding but the world view of political correct humanist and attheist that populate the democrat party. It’s as if some are trying to justify voting for a canidate based on a very narrow distiction while failing to to look at the results of democrat stonewalling any and every attemp to stop the progression of moral and cultural destruction. Anyone think that Ruth Ginsburg is not worse than John Roberts on issues that should be dear to the catholic church. Oboma unfettered will install the most millitant anti-life judges he can find. While McCain will have to nominate judges that he can get past the dem controled senate. Ya’ll hate George Bush, but for all his short coming, his legacy will be two very solid Justices that were passed with the help of John McCain. Intellectual Honesty anyone?