Special Interest/ lobby Groups (Stem Cell)

Stem cell research is the rare case of a scientific issue seizing and holding the attention of a large segment of the population. The promised benefits, the moral and ethical controversy between those supporting or opposing it, and the question of government funding combined to make it highly visible in the first years of the 21st century. Embryonic stem cell research has been the subject of state-level referendums and has been a major topic in the debate accompanying presidential, congressional, and state elections in the United States. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been the subject of bills passed in Congress and their subsequent veto by the president.

As with any issue that is to be resolved politically, sides for and against have mobilized themselves to affect national and state policy. Of course, while individuals can make their desires known to legislators and other government officials, political influence is best exercised by organized groups. Known as pressure groups, advocacies, special interest groups, or lobbies, the organizations attempt to convert their representatives to their side by educating their targets as to the benefits of their argument, contributing to campaign funds, or through the implied threat of mobilizing voters to vote against the individual who does not see things their way. In the case of stem cell research, organizations that have come into being specifically because of this question can be found alongside organizations that have existed for years and have taken this issue as part of their general program. In almost all instances the controversy is not over whether stem cell research should be conducted at all. Instead it is whether both embryonic and adult stem cell research should be performed and funded or adult stem cell research only. In the latter instance there is no controversy about creating life to destroy life, that is, the question of destroying embryos.


The term lobbying is generally used to describe the activities of any group that wishes to influence the course of politics. There are, of course, lobbyists who are professionals who advocate for a particular side. A lobbyist such as the Washington law firm of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek Government Affairs, which meets directly with congressmen and senators and has worked on behalf of embryonic stem cell research, must register and report its transactions twice a year.

However, groups that exist to support a particular side of an issue do not have to meet the same set of requirements. Political action committees (PACS) must register if they have either distributed or received a minimum of $1,000 in a federal-level election. There are limits as to how much they can give to a candidate or a political party, but there is no limit on how much they can spend in ways that are not directly tied to a candidate or party, such as funding television ads or educational programs.

Additionally, there are the 527 Groups which have been granted a tax exemption that concentrate on opposing or favoring a particular candidate. In this way, by focusing on an influential individual, they seek to influence policy. These organizations, while they bear some resemblance to PACS, are governed by different rules. In addition there are research organizations, collectively referred to as “think tanks,” that perform research and then develop documentation that supports a view on several subjects. In the area of stem cell research there have been contributions to one or the other side of the debate.

Finally, another class of organization that can and does mobilize opinion and advance a point of view is the churches. While they cannot support a particular candidate or party (they would lose their tax-exempt status), they can promote a certain view on the basis of moral grounds. On the issue of stem cell research, churches and their affiliated organizations have emerged as both very strong opponents of stem cell research and advocates.

All of these different types of organizations have existed on both sides of the stem cell issue and sought to influence issues such as spending or whether that type of research should be allowed even if privately funded. Some are political in nature, whether as lobbying organizations or as supporters of grassroots political activities. Others combine educational activities with direct funding for research. While it is beyond the scope of this article to list all of these groups or describe their activities in detail, a sampling provides an idea of how these groups function as well as the types of campaigns and initiatives with which they have been involved.


There is often a prominent religious background that informs most of the organizations that have expressed opposition to the conduct or funding of stem cell research, even in those that are not directly associated with a church or churches. In almost all instances organizations and prominent individuals (and thus, politicians) who are pro-life, antiabortion have also been opposed to embryonic stem cell research. As the struggle has gone on, however, an increasing number of opponents to either euthanasia or abortion have changed their views and have come out in support of embryonic stem cell research. Despite this split, the number of organizations that oppose this research on the federal and (perhaps most importantly in the minds of some) the state level has maintained a very high level of activity.

Two groups based in Washington, D.C., that have been very active are the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Concerned Women for America (CWA). The FRC, a think tank and lobbying organization, has been in existence since the early 1980s. Its opposition to embryonic stem cell research is part of a larger program. FRC activities have included educational briefings for members of Congress on advances made in adult stem cell research. This information is presented to bolster what they consider to already be a strong moral case against embryonic stem cell research. CWA, which promotes “Biblical values,” has opposed embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of embryonic human beings. The CWA states that its actions include prayer, education, and influencing society. Both of these organizations have worked on the state level to guide and advise state chapters in their efforts to have anti-stem cell legislation introduced on the state level.

The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (also known as Do No Harm) was founded in 1999. It is opposed to all research which requires the destruction of embryos and, among its activities, seeks to influence legislators, often through testimony at the state and federal levels. The Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, a political action committee, provides support and financing to women running for public office, especially the U.S. Congress, who are strongly pro-life. It supports adult stem cell research but has opposed all embryonic stem cell research legislation.

Two major conservative think tanks have gone on record as being opposed to embryonic stem cell research and funding. These are the Heritage Foundation based in Washington, D.C., and the Hoover Institution headquartered at Stanford University. In each case the organization has, through its publishing and educational programs, provided arguments against embryonic stem cell research, although it supports adult stem cell research. The Libertarian Cato Institute, also located in Washington, D.C., may be considered an opponent of embryonic stem cell research, although that stance is a part of its larger opinion that the government should not fund any stem cell research at all.

The Christian Coalition of America describes itself as the largest and most active conservative grassroots political organization in America. Its activities include distributing literature to individual voters, lobbying Congress, and supporting political action on the local and state levels. For the year 2008, its stated goals included efforts to oppose funding for embryonic stem cell research while supporting adult stem cell research. The National Right to Life Committee is a lobbying and educational organization that opposes embryonic stem cell research as part of its overall pro-life platform, which includes opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. It is not a religiously based organization.

One anti-embryonic stem cell research group that drew attention to itself was a state-level organization, Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. One outlet open to these organizations is the ability to buy advertising, including television ads. A restriction states, however, that the organization, within a specified window of time near an election (60 days), cannot name a specific candidate. In 2004, Wisconsin Right to Life ran ads naming incumbent Senator Russell Feingold. The issue mentioned in the ads had nothing to do with embryonic stem cell research, which Feingold supported, but it ran near the election against a senator whom the Wisconsin Group opposed. The issue was eventually heard before the Supreme Court, which allowed the ads.

The most consistent and perhaps the best organized foe of embryonic stem cell research has been the Roman Catholic Church. With substantial resources and a high profile, it has organized or supported several anti-embryonic stem cell research campaigns. It should be noted that although the Church opposes embryonic stem cell research, it has expressed support for work with adult stem cells. In addition to providing guidance to its members, it has been involved in outside education programs as well as political initiatives. While the Catholic Conference of Bishops has been at the very forefront of the controversy, several other Catholic organizations have played significant roles on local and state levels.

The Church’s opposition to California’s Proposition 71, in 2004, was substantial with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops giving $50,000 to efforts to defeat the measure. In this ultimately unsuccessful campaign, the Church was joined by several prominent individuals and organizations, including actor Mel Gibson, the Republican Party (with a couple of exceptions, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), and the California branch of the National Right to Life Committee.

In 2005, in Massachusetts, the state’s four Catholic bishops initiated a wide-scale advertising campaign against legislation that would have created embryonic stem cell research programs similar to those authorized by California’s Proposition 71. The following year, Missouri’s Catholic Conference issued a directive that all candidates for state-level office who had received donations from pro-embryonic stem cell research groups return the donations. The call for returning the money was specifically in regard to a Missouri group, Supporters of Health Research and Treatments, which had made donations totaling $381,300 to candidates and political groups. Subsequently, a complaint was registered with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that the Catholic Conference had violated the prohibition against political activity by religious nonprofit organizations.

The Church became involved in another stem cell election in 2007, this time in New Jersey. Since 2004, the state of New Jersey had publicly funded stem cell research; in fact, it was the first state to do so. After three years, Governor Jon Corzine supported an expansion that would be funded by the state taking a $450 million loan. New Jersey antiabortion groups, joined by the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, launched an active campaign against the measure. The loan was defeated, although most observers believed that the advertising by the Catholic group had little to do with the final outcome, as the measure seemed to be defeated more on the basis of perceived financial difficulties in the state rather than for the reasons that the Church was advocating.


While there are some religious groups and even churches that support embryonic stem cell research, proponents of that research are mostly secular. In a sense, the difference in religious orientation in this issue mirrors some of the larger “culture wars” of the first years of the 21st century. In addition, organizations that support embryonic stem cell research are often not only secular but are most often associated with scientific research. Thus, while organizations against the research may characterize their opponents as “Godless,” those supporting the research label their opponents as hostile to science. As a supporting argument they often cite the fact that many organizations that are opposed to stem cell research are also proponents of creationism and intelligent design. Another aspect of these organizations is that individual organizations sometimes have a higher visibility due largely to support they receive from celebrities. One final characteristic of these organizations is that most frequently, they do not embrace embryonic stem cell issue as their sole or even most important issue. Many are dedicated to the elimination of a particular disease or curing the results of a particular type of injury. Their support for embryonic stem cell research is part of their overall search for a cure.

One prominent organization is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), dedicated to finding a cure for type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. The JDRF, the organization addressed by Nancy Reagan in 2004 advocating federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, supports and directly funds both types of stem cell research. Most of its funding supports embryonic stem cell research. The American Association for the Advancement of Science furnishes information to members of Congress on science and technology and also acts as a means to teach scientists how to work with Congress. It has been supported in its efforts by the Civil Society Institute. That organization, based in Massachusetts, is a think tank that not only educates legislators and the general public but also provides some funding to ventures that it adopts. It has recently conducted interviews on perceptions among voters on stem cell research and has partnered with a lobbying firm, the Hastings Group.

Other organizations that have been involved in working to influence voters and legislators as well as to disseminate pro-embryonic stem cell information have included Wisconsin Stem Cell Now, Inc.; Americans for Cures Foundation, formerly known as the Alliance for Stem Cell Research; and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which has sponsored conferences to set strategies to advance the cause of embryonic stem cell research.

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation (CDRF) (originally the American Paralysis Foundation) has provided grants for research and for individual victims of injury. As is the case with many organizations, its objective is the cure of disease or damage, but it has supported stem cell research as a means to that end. The CDRF has gone on record as seeking to get a relaxation of the Bush guidelines concerning stem cell research issued in 2001.

In 2000, another actor, Michael J. Fox, established the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease. The organization provides information on the disease but has also directly funded research toward finding a cure. Fox appeared in commercials encouraging voters to support legislation that would allow stem cell research, most notably during a referendum in Missouri in 2006.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) is an independent, nonprofit organization organized in 2002 and works to disseminate stem cell research information to scientists and the general public. The year after ISSCR was formed, the Genetics Policy Institute was started. Its primary activities are educational, organizing meetings, publishing, and contacting the media. StemPAC, a 527 group, has as its objective the election of officials who support embryonic stem cell research and the defeat of those that do not.

During the 2004 voting in California on Proposition 71, an umbrella group supporting the passage of that measure came into being: the Coalition for Stem Cell Research. It was a large group, including organizations that supported embryonic stem cell research as their first priority as well as foundations and organizations that saw it as a potential answer to their main cause. It included Bill Gates, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Alzheimer’s Association California Council, and the Sickle Cell Disease Foundation of California. Additionally it included the support of the National Organization for Women, the NAACP and Latino organizations, and Planned Parenthood.

The mix of motives and priorities for these participants and supporters of Proposition 71 did not prevent them from organizing and winning. It does, however, raise one factor to be considered in evaluating and measuring the activities of organizations both for and against. It may be impossible, or at least very difficult to precisely measure their influence and effectiveness. First, the lines will not always be clear as to who will support or oppose embryonic stem cell research or why. There is also the possibility that a measure can be defeated for reasons that have nothing to do with the scientific, moral, or ethical issues that special interest groups are trying to advance.

In some cases, such as the New Jersey referendum in 2007, the efforts of the Catholic Church to defeat embryonic stem cell research funding may have been totally superfluous. In the end, concern for the fiscal health of the state seems to have been what killed that measure.

In the case of Proposition 71 in California, the coalition of pro-embryonic stem cell advocates triumphed, but they faced a collection of groups, not all of them conservative and not all of them religious. Some of the opponents might not have been obvious. Opposition to Proposition 71 included the California Nurses Association, the Green Party, the Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71, and Our Bodies Ourselves. Further, at least one group opposed it not because of any ethical or moral objections to stem cell research but because it saw the measure as bene-fitting pharmaceutical companies and the biotech industry.

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