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WASHINGTON LETTER Sep-19-2008 (820 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With logo posted Aug. 15. xxxn

Campaign '08: Candidates' stands on life cover more than abortion

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- On few topics do presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain diverge as sharply as on abortion. But on other life issues -- embryonic stem-cell research, assisted suicide and the death penalty -- the differences are not always easy to ferret out.

On abortion, McCain's campaign Web site said the Republican candidate "believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned" as "one step in the long path toward ending abortion." Obama's Web site says the Democratic nominee "will make safeguarding women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority" and that he "opposes any constitutional amendment to overturn that decision."

In their 2007 document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility," the U.S. Catholic bishops stress the importance of the life issues.

"The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many," the document says. "It must always be opposed."

Martin Shaffer, a political science professor and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said the impact of the life issues "may be murky at best given that neither candidate has been known nationally as a leader in either direction on those issues."

"Although John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for his ticket is in part an attempt to make connections to voters on the life issues, neither presidential candidate is crystal clear and consistent on these issues," Shaffer told Catholic News Service Sept. 17.

On stem cells, neither McCain nor Obama fully embraces the bishops' unequivocal opposition to any stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

McCain "opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes" and "will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem-cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos," according to his Web site.

Obama believes "we owe it to the American public to explore the potential of stem cells to treat the millions of people suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases," his campaign site says.

But both candidates voted for -- and Obama co-sponsored -- the Stem-Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which President George W. Bush vetoed and the U.S. bishops had strongly opposed. The legislation would have permitted the destruction of so-called "spare embryos," unused after fertility treatments, for use in embryonic stem-cell experiments.

Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and a columnist on Catholic issues, said she believes the life issues "will play a very big role in the election, not only for Catholics but for all people of religious faith."

But because both candidates would permit embryonic stem-cell research and McCain has said he would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother's life, "for people for whom life issues are primary, I honestly don't know how it will fall," she told CNS Sept. 18.

Zagano said, however, that the combination of Palin's "appeal to the middle of America" and McCain's stronger position on abortion will likely mean that religiously motivated voters "will fall more on the McCain side."

The topic of assisted suicide does not come up on either candidate's campaign Web site, and neither has taken a public stand on Washington state's Initiative 1000, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide.

In "Faithful Citizenship," the bishops say, "The purposeful taking of human life by assisted suicide and euthanasia is not an act of mercy, but an unjustifiable assault on human life."

The bishops also criticize "our nation's continued reliance on the death penalty" and said they support "efforts to end" its use and moves to limit it "through broader use of DNA evidence, access to effective counsel and efforts to address unfairness and injustice related to application of the death penalty."

Asked by U.S. Catholic magazine about their positions on capital punishment, neither candidate embraced that view.

"I support the death penalty for heinous crimes in which the circumstances warrant capital punishment," said McCain.

Obama's stand was a bit more nuanced. "Throughout my career I have worked strenuously to ensure that the death penalty is only administered fairly and justly," he told U.S. Catholic. "But I do believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that they deserve the death penalty."

Frank McNeirney, co-founder and national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, says he does not expect the death penalty to be much of an issue for Catholic voters in the 2008 elections. Even in 2004, when the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, opposed the death penalty, "it was not a big factor in any of the debates," he said.


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