Hoping for an Honest Debate on Stem Cell Research

The Washington Post strongly suggests that President Bush’s veto of expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is a political loser for Republicans. If so, it may have something to do with the conflation and misinformation with which the story is frequently purveyed on mass media outlets.

On the other hand, James Taranto of Opinion Journal (who confesses to having “mixed feelings” on the debate) muses that the issue may not be the big political loser that conventional wisdom has declared:

We do wonder, though, if this really is as winning an issue as Bush’s foes think it is. Of the five Republican senators generally considered vulnerable in November, only Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island voted “yes.” Jim Talent of Missouri, Conrad Burns of Montana, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania all voted against the bill, as did Jon Kyl of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia, whom the most optimistic Democrats also think they have a chance of defeating. Only one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted “no,” and he also is up for re-election this year and is regarded as vulnerable.

Taranto also calls out the frequent misportrayal of the issue as a “ban on stem cell research.” Many opponents of President Bush and proponents of Rep. Diana DeGette’s vetoed bill seem to thrive on distorting reality and concealing important distinctions. For example, our friends at ProgressNow, in an online petition to override the president’s veto, cite a May 2006 poll that shows 72 percent of Americans in favor of DeGette’s bill.

Yet as Eric Cohen has explained at National Review Online, the survey question read to respondents was less than fully informative:

The Castle-DeGette bill’s backers have just one card left: public opinion. Even if none of their arguments hold up, they claim that they have persuaded the public, and that this is reason enough to change the policy. But even this claim doesn’t hold up.

Castle-DeGette supporters, Wednesday’s Post notes, “point to new polling data indicating that a greater majority of Americans than ever, 72 percent, support the research—a finding that candidates, they say, cannot afford to ignore.”

But note how the poll they cite actually frames the issue:

“Embryonic stem cells are special cells that can develop into every type of cell in the human body. The stem cells are extracted from embryonic cells produced in fertility clinics and then frozen days after fertilization. If a couple decides that the fertilized eggs are no longer needed, they can choose to donate the embryos for research or the clinic will throw the embryos away. Scientists have had success in initial research with embryonic stem cells and believe that they can be developed into cures for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, heart disease, juvenile diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.”

Those being questioned are given a vastly exaggerated impression of the promise of the science. And they are never told the research involves the destruction of human embryos—in fact, the way the poll frames the issue almost suggests the research is an alternative to the destruction of embryos.

And I wish we could see and hear important facts and arguments like these given some play in the mainstream local and national media coverage:

Embryos are not the only source for stem cells. These remarkable cells that have the flexibility to transform themselves into other types of cells can be found in umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, bone marrow, muscle tissue and skin tissue, to name just a few other sources.

These adult stem cells have been dramatically successful in improving some 72 medical conditions, including various forms of leukemia, juvenile arthritis, corneal regeneration, spinal cord injury, sickle cell anemia and liver cirrhosis.

On the other hand, the total number of benefits to human patients using embryonic stem cells is zero!

The real question is: Wouldn’t it be more practical to use the finite amount of public funds (your tax dollars) for research on treatment strategies that have proved their worth than to divert those funds into research that has yet to show any benefit to mice, let alone humans?

The best that scientists can say is that there possibly may be some potential benefit from more embryonic stem cell research some day – but hey, it doesn’t take much for some politicians to callously spout, “Human embryos be damned!” (Or in the case of former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, the outlandish and politically exploitative claim that such research would enable the late Chris Reeve to rise up and walk.) After all, it’s a chance to spit on the hated bogeyman that is the frightening and monolithic “Religious Right.”

But putting the moral issue aside, because I understand there is a real and honest debate on that core issue, how does a small-government conservative support expanding federal funding of such an as-yet unsuccessful program? After all, the legality of the practice is not at stake here, but rather the federal spending.

Or for the “progressive”-minded reader, do you have no qualms about supporting corporate welfare for the biotech industry? Because make no mistake about it, no group has invested more resources into lobbying for the DeGette bill than they have. But I’m also open to hearing an explanation of the distinction between the “good” biotech industry and the “evil” drug companies.

As Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost so keenly dissects the matter:

If corporations asked the government to fund research into hydrogen-fueled cars by over-hyping their potential while denigrating the alternatives (i.e., electric cars), the watchdogs in the media would be writing Pulitzer-winning exposes. Yet embryonic stem cell research, which currently consists of bad science and even worse ethics, is given a pass. The hype and outright dishonesty surrounding the support of this research instead of adult stem cell research is scandalous — and has been abetted by the mainstream media. (Former Science Editor Tim Radford of the UK’s The Guardian even admitted at a recent conference that he and his fellow science journalists hype stem cell research to sell more newspapers.)

Since they can’t even cover the obvious story-behind-the-story, the media are even less likely to report on the Congressional hypocrisy of creating a law to circumvent one that they themselves have passed. Yet that is what the current legislation intends to do.

I am just looking forward to a fair and honest discussion about the stem cell issue – minus the hype, the misinformation, and the distortions. Is that asking too much?

(Sigh. I know, I know…)


  1. says

    “Shouldn’t we also ban fertility clinics then?”

    ALSO ban? What else are we banning? Oh, wait, the whole post only attempted to clarify the debate. More confusion, misdirection, and misinformation.

    I suggest reading it again, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous commenter.

  2. says

    My apologies for the snarkiness. It was uncalled for.

    But I’m not falling for the fertility clinic trap. I wouldn’t want federal funding for them either. Whatever the President’s reasoning is for the veto, I am opposed to a federal subsidy of embryonic stem-cell research because I have seen no substantial evidence that it promises to do what so many have purported that it would.

    In fact, however, it is potentially dangerous and not just neutral for so many to inflate hopes on a false basis. On the other hand, adult stem cell research has shown some results, and a much stronger case for federal funding can be made.

    The dishonesty many use to conflate the issues and distort the terminology reeks of shameless political pandering. Others have the best of intentions, but as much as possible we should urge public policy to be based on sound logic and reality, not feel-good platitudes and etherea.

    I look forward to your response to this and to any of the other arguments I presented in the post. It is hard to be perfectly honest about an issue when political advantage is at stake.

  3. says

    Mr. Stranger, I would be willing to answer your questions, if you took the time to answer mine. Answering a question with a question is weak, condescending, and does a disservice to your credibility.

    I’ve made an argument, and have raised questions that you refuse to answer. I have sought to answer your questions reasonably. But really I have better things to do, like having an honest intellectual argument with someone willing to do so. Ta ta!

  4. says

    To get to the bottom of this question, we would need to locate information that answers the following questions:

    – When did the federal government start funding adult stem cell research?
    – How much has the federal government funded adult stem cell research on a year-by-year basis?
    – How much private funding was invested in adult stem cell research before federal government funding?
    – How much private funding is invested in adult stem cell research today?
    – How much private funding is invested currently in embryonic stem cell research?
    – How many of the 72 medical improvements yielded from adult stem cell research were made before federal funding? Since federal funding?
    – How much progress in adult stem cell research can be traced to increases in private funding? Increases in federal funding?

    I don’t have the time or capabilities to answer these questions now, but they would be essential to furthering an honest debate on the question. I have yet to see this sort of information presented. If it’s available, it sure would be helpful to know.


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