Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated stem cells that can only be obtained from embryos, and currently most procedures to obtain these stem cells result in the destruction of the embryo itself. There are no universal Democratic views on stem cell research, and religious beliefs and personal experiences often are a significant factor in individual’s views on this issue. However, that being said, Democrats are largely perceived to be more supportivea of stem cell research in general, and embryonic stem cell research in particular. In a 2004 poll by Gallup, 76% of Democrats supported easing government restrictions on stem cell research. 12% of Democrats endorsed doing away with or greatly reducing research restrictions, and 8% supported no funding at all. Republicans were divided, with 37% supporting expanded research and 36% favoring continued restriction at the current level.
History of the Stem Cell Controversy
Stem cells were first used in the 1950s in the treatment of leukemia, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that stem cell research became a national political issue. This was due to the landmark 1973 legal case Roe vs. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that an in-utero fetus did not have personhood rights under the 14th amendment. In 1974, fearing an explosion of unmonitored research practices, the Democratic-majority congress issued a temporary suspension of all federally funded research that used human embryos, until appropriate regulations could be outlined and implemented. In the mid-1990s under Democratic President Bill Clinton, a Republican-controlled congress passed the landmark Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for any experiment in which a human embryo is either created or destroyed.
Definition of Personhood
Much of the scientific community has posited that embryonic and adult stem cells are not equally useful in the treatment of diseases and research. Embryonic stem cells are more easily cultivated, more concentrated, and more widely applicable in research and treatment of human disease than adult stem cells. The strong partisan divide over stem cell research comes from differing views on the use of human embryos in research, and is tied in many ways to a larger debate about the legal definitions of personhood. In general, Democrats have a narrower view of “personhood” than Republicans, who largely believe that human life begins at conception (or at least, earlier than at birth). The use of embryonic stem cells for research and treatment is also an inextricable extension of the highly polarized debate in the U.S. over abortion. Because of the ongoing, national dialogue about abortion rights, the legal definition of personhood is seen as a critical point of contestation that has ramifications for a wide range of partisan issues.
Democrat’s religious beliefs generally are less influential in their political beliefs than Republicans, a Pew Research study howed. Both Democrats and Republicans position themselves as defenders of individual rights, depending on the individual being defended. For example, Democrats tend to support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, arguing that they are defending the woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. In this case, the woman is the individual whose rights are being protected. Republicans argue that in this case the individual who needs to be protected is the unborn child, and that a woman choosing to have an abortion is a negation of the individual rights of the fetus. In the case of stem cells research, Democrats argue that the moral imperative is to seek cures for devastating diseases that claim many human lives (protection of individuals with illnesses), while Republicans contend that to doing so at the cost of embryonic destruction is equally immoral. The proportion of Americans who believe that embryonic stem cell research morally wrong is significantly higher among both Republicans and those who attend church. Historically there have been a number of Democratic and Republican legislators who support stem cell research but do not support abortion rights.
In addition to the stem cell debate’s connection to the controversial issues of personhood and abortion, the implication of taxpayer funding of research that might go against some taxpayer’s moral beliefs further complicates the partisan divide over the issue of stem cell research. Many organizations that seek to enhance public health and fight disease, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), are federally funded by tax dollars. Democrats largely support stem cell research, and endorse federally funded and conducted research in this area. Republicans who oppose stem cell research argue that taxpayer dollars should not support an activity that goes against the beliefs of many taxpayers. Republicans have argued that this is a violation of the separation of church and state as well as individuals’ religious liberties. Rules and regulations on stem cell research are heavily influenced by the current political climate, and federal guidelines are updated frequently in response to changes in the national political environment. In 2001, Republican President George W Bush signed an order prohibiting the NIH from funding expanded research on embryonic stem cells, and twice vetoed legislation that would have expanded research further. In 2009, Democratic President Barack Obama overturned that order.
Donald Trump on Stem Cell Research
There has been significant speculation regarding how the presidency of Republican Donald Trump may impact stem cell research. Vice President Mike Pence has been an outspoken advocate of banning embryonic stem cell research, and under Pence’s governorship in 2016, the State of Indiana passed legislation banning the donation of fetal tissue for research, and also mandated abortion providers to cremate of fetal tissue instead of providing it to medical research entities. The law was suspended a day before it was enacted and remains so. 2011 polling by Gallup indicated that about 62% of Americans supported medical research using embryonic stem cells, and 31% did not support it based on moral unacceptability. In every dimension measured, Democrats were more supportive than Republicans of stem cell research, adult and embryonic. 70% of Democrats favored federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and 58% of Republicans opposed it.
- Stem Cells Can Be Collected Without Destroying Embryos, Scientists Show – National Geographic
- Stem Cells Divide Republicans and Democrats – Gallup
- Timeline: A Brief History of Stem Cell Research – Science Progress
- Stem Cell Research at the Crossroads of Religion and Politics – Pew Research Center
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