Perdue, McCrory spar on stem cells

The campaign for governor is being waged with a wheelchair and dead parents.

Democratic and Republican candidates are rolling out emotional tales and images to jab each other over embryonic stem cell research, a complex scientific and moral question of life-saving cures versus snuffing out life.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic candidate, recently deployed a television ad featuring Sarah Witt of Raleigh, a former marathon runner now paralyzed by a neurological disease. Speaking from a wheelchair and with the aid of an electronic voice box, she criticizes the Republican nominee, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, for opposing embryonic stem cell research.

“A motor neuron disease has already taken away my ability to walk and to speak, but it hasn't taken away my ability to hope – hope that stem cell research will let me see my kids grow up,” Witt says. “How can (McCrory) be against hope?”

The ad is part of Perdue's ongoing effort to paint McCrory as an extreme conservative.

McCrory countered with an ad featuring his sister, Linda Sebastian, who scolds Perdue for suggesting McCrory is insensitive to suffering. She highlights that their parents died of “long illnesses” – Alzheimer's disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Using a victim of terrible disease for political gain is shameful. Pat McCrory supports stem cell research when a human embryo is not destroyed,” Sebastian said in the ad, referring to advancements in research using non-embryonic stem cells, such as those derived from human skin.

McCrory's strategist, Jack Hawke, said on Monday that McCrory would sign a bill that banned embryonic stem cell research. On Tuesday, though, McCrory was less definitive.

“I don't know the details of what we can do now enough to know,” McCrory said. “I'd have to get back to you on that.”

Perdue is stoking an issue on which she has previously played no visible role. Her campaign could not provide a public statement she has made on the issue prior to the campaign.

Rep. Earl Jones, a Greensboro Democrat who sponsored a bill for stem cell funding last year, said he didn't hear from Perdue until after it passed the House, even though the funding would come through the Health & Wellness Trust Fund that she chairs. But he said she stepped in once it reached the Senate, where it never got out of committee.

“She was the first person to call me,” he said. “She wanted to know what she could do.”

Seeking a cure

Embryonic stem cells are derived from the inside of a fertilized human egg, usually from a fertilization clinic. Stem cells can develop specialized cells from which various human tissues form and can renew themselves. Scientists are using them to try and cure currently incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Opponents condemn the research as destroying a human life, but supporters argue that the embryos used are those that fertility clinics are going to destroy anyway.

Congress and President Bush banned federal funding for research on new lines of embryonic stem cells in 2001 but didn't ban the research itself. That left the opportunity for private institutions and states to step in, prompting debates and either bans against, or funding for, the research in 13 states.

Perdue said she would push for state funding for embryonic stem cell research and that voters will pay attention to the issue, even in the midst of the dire financial news.

“I think the people of the state are eat up right now, as I am, with concern over the economy and the future,” Perdue said last week. “But they also, if they've got a quadriplegic or a kid who has severe diabetes, they worry about how they can help that kid live or function longer.”

McCrory's campaign said he supports stem cell research from non-controversial sources, which shows increasing promise for results, but Hawke, his strategist, said McCrory would support a ban on embryonic research.

North Carolina's legislature has not considered a ban. The state House passed a bill last year providing state funding that the Senate never considered.

Ryan Teague Beckwith of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.