Video: Fox favors Ben Cardin, D-Md., for senate

updated 10/27/2006 10:44:58 AM ET 2006-10-27T14:44:58

The TV ad is disturbing and difficult to watch. Michael J. Fox’s face, so familiar from all his appearances in the "Back to the Future" movies and hit TV shows such as "Family Ties," "Spin City" and "Boston Legal," bobs uncontrollably around the screen. Why? Then you remember: Fox is a relatively young man who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. And that is precisely the point of the ad.

Fox is pushing the voters of Missouri not to forget people like him, who suffer from incurable diseases, when they get to the ballot box in less than two weeks to decide who will be the next senator from Missouri.

It is not surprising that support for embryonic stem cell research is an issue candidates are using to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Polls consistently show the majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. What is novel and noteworthy is that the battle to secure public funding for embryonic stem cell research has created a new special interest group that might influence American politics for many years to come: the disease advocacy lobby.

Some on the opposing side of the stem cell issue have a vague inkling of the power of the emerging disease advocacy lobby and it frightens them. Rush Limbaugh, who currently serves as a pro bono Republican National Committee press hack, had a brain freeze when he realized that Fox had decided to come out swinging on stem cells. Rush fumed on his radio show that Fox had clearly gone off his meds to make the ad and that he was “acting.”

Now there are people who need to be off their meds — Limbaugh apparently has serious jones for pain pills. But, it is certainly fair to make an ad about the need to for research to cure your disease without trying to cover up your symptoms. What really drove Limbaugh nuts is that he senses that Fox’s tremors could really shake up the vote in states such as Missouri.

A constitutional amendment on the Missouri ballot would legalize embryonic stem cell research. Proponents have spent more than $28 million — about 10 times as much as critics — to get the initiative passed. The incumbent senator, Republican Jim Talent , is facing a tough challenge from state auditor Claire McCaskill partly because she is a staunch supporter of embryonic stem cell research and he is not. Ads like Fox’s clearly are having an impact.

Another equally tough political ad that rivals the emotional power of the Fox ad is airing in upstate New York in the 25th Congressional District. In it, a mom, a young girl and a teenage boy want to know why Republican Rep. James Walsh voted against federal funding of stem cell research, thereby condemning them — and people like them — to have to struggle with diabetes or paralysis.  The stem cell issue is, if not front and center, then at least popping up in congressional races in Illinois, Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states.

Heated races
In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin and Republican Lt. Governor Michael Steele , candidates for the open Senate seat, strongly disagree about public funding for embryonic stem cell research. At one point, Steele got in a heap of trouble for comparing embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments in concentration camps.

In the race for the governorships of Maine, Massachusetts and Wisconsin , democrats are trying to use their party’s support for public funding for all forms of stem cell research as a weapon against Republicans.

Political analysts and pundits have noted that the stem cell issue is surfacing in some close races. What the pundits are missing is that the stem cell issue is not just a matter of a tiny interest group pushing its pet agenda. The emerging new interest is not only capable of raising money to support pro-embryonic stem cell research candidates, but perhaps of delivering crucial votes on Nov. 7 and beyond.

Just a few months ago a Republican Congress came very close to overriding the only veto that President Bush ever made — to block public funding of embryonic stem cell research. How did it happen that Congress, which was strongly opposed to such funding back in 2002, and being lobbied hard by the influential pro-life lobby, shifted with a majority supporting public funding in both the House and the Senate by 2006?

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The answer has a little to do with the power of ethical arguments in favor of funding embryonic stem cell research to change minds. What Congress really responded to was an incredibly well-organized and powerful lobby of disease and disability organizations. These include those fighting to help people with cancer, diabetes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Parkinson's disease, infertility, paralysis, blindness, heart disease and a variety of other disorders and ailments. For the first time ever, these groups pulled together and made their lobbying presence felt to the point where a Republican Congress came close to abandoning a president from their own party.

Patient power
Not only do these groups command money, politicians realize they also control votes. If you total up the number of people who have these diseases and disabilities, their families and friends and those who take care of them you are talking about millions and millions of Americans.

In close races around the country this new lobbying group may be capable of getting people to vote and make the difference as to who wins. If you keep an eye on their Web sites, you will see disease advocacy groups in many states organizing to get their members and friends to the polls.

If the coalition that formed so effectively around advocacy for embryonic stem cell research hangs together, it may well become a force that American politicians ignore only at their peril.

Look around at your polling place — if you see more people than usual in wheelchairs, using a cane, walking a bit slowly or being helped into the polling place by a sibling, friend or parent, you may be watching the start of a new phenomenon in American politics.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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