Print reports ignore tension between McCain's assertion that human rights begin at conception and support for stem cell research

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post all reported Sen. John McCain's assertion at a forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren that he believes "a baby [is] entitled to human rights" "[a]t the moment of conception." But none of the articles raised the question of how McCain reconciles this statement with his support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and certain exceptions to a ban on abortion.

In articles following August 16 appearances by Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain at a forum at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, numerous print media outlets, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and three separate articles in The Washington Post, reported McCain's assertion at the forum that he believes "a baby [is] entitled to human rights" "[a]t the moment of conception." But in none of the articles did the reporters raise the question of how McCain reconciles his position that human rights begin at conception with his support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and support of exemptions for cases of rape or incest in a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

Nor did they point out that McCain did not note whether his position that "a baby [is] entitled to human rights" "[a]t the moment of conception" means that he would support making illegal in vitro fertilization in which not all embryos are then implanted, intrauterine devices (IUDs), the morning-after pill, or the birth control pill.

By contrast, in an August 17 Time.com article, Nancy Gibbs wrote of McCain's statement at Saddleback Church:

Consider the obvious implications if rights attain the moment the egg and sperm meet: all kinds of embryo research become questionable, starting with the stem-cell research McCain says he favors. Couples who undergo in vitro fertilization and then choose not to implant all the embryos are surely violating the rights of those that are discarded or frozen. Some forms of contraception, such as IUDs and the morning-after pill, would presumably be illegal if they affect the ability of an egg to implant. Abortion opponents contend that the birth control pill itself, while designed to prevent ovulation so no egg is fertilized in the first place, may also have the effect of blocking implantation of any egg that sneaks through. Suddenly, a whole range of reproductive choices comes into question.

Similarly, in an August 18 USA Today article, Cathy Lynn Grossman reported that R. Alta Charo, the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "said McCain's view on conception was inconsistent with his support of embryonic stem cell research," and quoted her assertion: "If he believes in human rights at the moment of conception, then he ought to be against embryonic stem cell research."

During the August 16 forum, McCain had the following exchange with Warren:

WARREN: Let's deal with abortion. I, as a pastor, have to deal with this all the time, every different angle, every different pain, all the decisions on all of that; 40 million abortions since Roe v. Wade. Some people, people who believe that life begins at conception, would say that's a holocaust for many people. What point is a baby entitled to human rights?

McCAIN: At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record, in the Congress, in the Senate; and as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment -- that's my commitment to you.

Moments later, McCain stated that he has "come down on the side of stem cell research":

WARREN: Another issue, stem cells. We've had the scientific breakthrough of creating pluripotent stem cells through adult stem cells.

McCAIN: Yes.

WARREN: So would you favor or oppose the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research since we had this other breakthrough?

McCAIN: For those of us in the pro-life community this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we're also taught other obligations that we have as well. I've come down on the side of stem cell research. But I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research, which is coming more and more into focus and practicability, will make this debate an academic one.

Indeed, McCain voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which would "Amend[] the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells, regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo." The legislation passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Bush.

As Media Matters for America has noted, on the November 19, 2006, edition of ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopoulos said to McCain: "You're for a constitutional amendment banning abortion with some exceptions for life and rape and incest." McCain replied: "Rape, incest, and the life of the mother, yes."

The following articles quoted McCain's statement that human rights begin "at the moment of conception" without noting his stated support for embryonic stem-cell research or the right of a woman to obtain an abortion in cases of rape or incest:

  • An August 17 New York Times article, in which Katharine Q. Seelye and John Broder reported: "Mr. Obama skirted a question about when life begins, saying that determining such a thing was above his pay grade and sending murmurs throughout the audience. Mr. McCain said simply, 'At the moment of conception.' "
  • An August 17 Washington Post article, in which staff writers Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr. reported: "In his interview with Warren, McCain received loud applause from the crowd of more than 2,000 when he declared his view that unborn children deserve rights 'at the moment of conception,' and offered one of the most emphatic declarations of his opposition to abortion in his presidential campaign."
  • An August 17 Associated Press article in which Charles Babington and Beth Fouhy reported: "Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain differed sharply on abortion Saturday, with McCain saying a baby's human rights begin 'at conception,' while Obama restated his support for legalized abortion."
  • An August 18 Wall Street Journal article, in which Laura Meckler wrote: "The contrast between the two men may have been sharpest on abortion. Mr. Warren asked at what point a 'baby' is 'entitled to human rights.' Sen. McCain gave the answer most in the crowd wanted to hear: 'At the moment of conception.' "
  • An August 20 Washington Post article, in which staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael Shear wrote: "Over the weekend, McCain emerged from a forum at the Saddleback evangelical church with high praise from conservatives for his answer to the question about when life begins. He said simply, 'At conception.' "
  • An August 20 Washington Post article, in which staff writer Jonathan Weisman reported: "At Saddleback, McCain won plaudits from conservatives when he said that life begins 'at the moment of conception,' especially after Obama deflected the question."
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.