In the latest sign that political ads starring actor Michael J. Fox could be aiding Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin and other proponents of embryonic stem cell research, Republican Senate nominee Michael S. Steele countered yesterday with a spot in which his sister asserts that Steele supports the potentially groundbreaking science. She also reveals that she has multiple sclerosis.
"Congressman Ben Cardin is attacking Michael Steele with deceptive, tasteless ads," says Monica Turner, a pediatrician and the ex-wife of the boxer Mike Tyson. Dressed in a crisp white blouse and dark blazer, she speaks in level tones directly to the camera, saying Cardin "is using the victim of a terrible disease to frighten people all for his own political gain."
In the highly publicized Fox ads, the actor, who has Parkinson's disease, lurches about, his head jerking from side to side, as he endorses Cardin and says Steele seeks to "put limits on the most promising stem cell research." Fox is supporting Democrats in Missouri and New Jersey in similar spots.
Steele supports adult stem cell research but has said he would support embryonic stem cell research only if it could be done without the destruction of the embryo, a feat scientists have yet to accomplish but a position that has been embraced by conservative political leaders who oppose abortion. Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, formulated that view after stumbling into controversy by comparing embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experimentation in February in front of a group of Baltimore Jewish leaders.
A majority of Marylanders support public funding for embryonic stem cell research, according to polls. A Sun survey conducted in November indicated that 60 percent of Maryland voters favored funding for research, 27 percent opposed it and 13 percent were not sure.
Many scientists believe that research on embryonic cells could provide treatments or cures for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's because the cells take on the properties of many different kinds of cells. Adult stem cells do not have the same transformative potential.
In the new Steele ad, his sister pushes back at his critics. "There's something you should know about Michael Steele," she says. "He does support stem cell research, and he cares deeply for those who suffer from disease. How do I know? I'm Michael Steele's little sister. I have MS, and I know he cares about me."
The ad was greeted yesterday with cries of hypocrisy from some prominent local scientists and skepticism from political analysts who say that Democrats - especially in Maryland, where they outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 on voter rolls - might have finally found a wedge issue that could give them an edge in tight races.
"My view is that it's symptomatic of a broader problem that Republicans have this year," said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Stem cells have also emerged as a key election issue in Missouri. "Republicans are failing to come to grips with real problems that are affecting real people - and for largely ideological reasons. The Republicans are too far to the right, too beholden to people on the right in terms of cultural values."
After the Fox ads began airing, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh criticized Fox - the star of the sitcoms Family Ties and Spin City, and the Back to the Future movies - for acting or not taking his medication. He later apologized.
Fox is not backing down. He has stumped for several candidates this week, and in an interview Thursday with Katie Couric of CBS News, said, "Disease is a nonpartisan problem that requires a bipartisan solution."
"I could give a damn about Rush Limbaugh's pity or anyone else's pity; I'm not a victim," said Fox, whose Parkinson's foundation has raised $85 million. "I'm in this situation with millions of other Americans. ... We have a right, if there's answers out there, to pursue those answers with the full support of our politicians."
In Steele's ad, Turner, who reveals her illness publicly for the first time, says that Cardin "should be ashamed" for allowing Fox campaign for him.
Doug Heye, a spokesman for Steele's campaign, said Turner's illness was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago but declined to provide further details.
Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, said that Steele is attempting to neutralize the stem cell issue but that his ad could backfire because it is misleading.
"If the accusation is that Cardin is exploiting [Fox], then what does her performance represent?" Baker said of Steele's sister. "This definitely does not give him the high ground."
Baker said Cardin ought to counter with an ad clarifying Steele's position for voters who might not know the difference between adult and embryonic stem cell research.
The Cardin campaign issued a statement emphasizing that Steele stands with President Bush, who has restricted federal funding for research to a limited group of existing stem cell lines. Cardin spokesman Oren Shur said the campaign has seen a "bump" in fundraising since the Fox ad began airing.
"We continue to be amazed by Michael Steele's ability to abandon all of his convictions and say anything to get elected," Shur said. "Michael Steele and George W. Bush are both staunch opponents of embryonic stem cell research."
Dr. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was surprised to learn of the Steele ad because it appears "desperate."
Now, said Caplan, the Steele campaign is presenting Turner as a "counter-patient" to moderate the impression Fox may have had on an electorate that tends to favor stem cell research.
"It looks like a very desperate move to blunt what appears as an attack that's scoring points," Caplan said, adding, "It's the usual attempt by the person who doesn't want to be seen on the wrong side of the issue."
There is nothing new about celebrities playing leading roles in raising money and awareness for the diseases that ail them. Mary Tyler Moore has done it for diabetes, Mike Wallace for depression and Christopher Reeve for spinal cord injury.
What's emerging now is celebrities inserting themselves into electoral politics, Caplan said. But he said it may be a natural extension of the way science and medical ethics have entered political discourse, with Congress debating stem cell funding and politicians even weighing in on Terri Schiavo's condition.
For those suffering from illnesses potentially helped by the research, the issue and its politics are particularly salient. Beverly Storms, a Crofton resident who has battled Parkinson's for 14 years, says she sees a reflection of herself when she sees the writhing image of Fox.
"It's like looking in the mirror at a younger, male me," said Storms, 66.
A Roman Catholic, Storms said she opposes abortion but is torn over the issue of embryonic stem cell research. She said she was impressed by a priest who preached that people should do what they can for the living. And she has trouble understanding why scientists shouldn't find lifesaving uses for embryos that would otherwise be discarded.
Douglas A. Kerr, one of three well-known Johns Hopkins University scientists who participated yesterday in a hastily organized news conference called to criticize the Steele ad, said embryonic stem cell research funding "is really the greatest hope for a cure to reverse disability." He chided Steele for supporting the president's veto of a bill this fall that would have loosened restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
"The scientific community, in large, sees this as the major hope," Kerr said, "and you just can't help but wonder if the people who are opposed to this research ultimately need that as a therapy down the road, would they use it?"