Solid science or attack on innocent life?

encyc_bioethicsWith President Barack Obama’s announcement that he will change President Bush’s policy on taxpayer funding of stem cell research that destroys embryos, expect quite a bit of media coverage.

This is an area where the media have struggled to provide fair, much less accurate, reportage of the issues at play. As you look through the media coverage in coming days, it might be worthwhile to read Joseph Bottum and Ryan Anderson’s media analysis of stem cell coverage that appeared in the November 2008 First Things. Here’s how they set the scene:

It was a season of small demagogueries, a time of the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts — it was a political moment, in other words, and hardly anyone is naive enough to forget that partisan politics always has partisan purposes.

Hardly anyone, that is, except America’s scientists. For six years, from 2001 through 2007, embryonic stem cells seemed almost the sole topic of popular science. Front-page stories hyped the most minor of breakthroughs, newspaper editorials raged against any luddite who suggested even the slightest moral doubts, and television talk shows made stars of the scientists and biotech spokesmen who promised that embryonic stem cells would deliver extraordinary medical advances.

The two describe the “flailing response” of pro-lifers — trumpeting every stem cell research advance that didn’t destroy embryos. But they go on to show how the media narrative was constructed wrongly.

For one thing, the media frequently refer to Bush’s “stem-cell ban” when, in fact, he was the first president to allow the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research. He limited federally-funded research to already-established stem-cell lines (so that embryos wouldn’t be created for the purpose of harvesting) but that was a first for the U.S. Government.

But there was never any ban. Private individuals using non-taxpayer funds could do all the embryo destroying they wanted. And state governments could — and did — use state taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem-cell research.

The piece looks into how various politicians promised that embryonic stem cell research would cure some of the worst ailments known to mankind and shows how this media narrative was aided by scientists:

In the summer before the 2004 presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells–but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require, he said, “a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

The story goes on to note how much media coverage has changed since the announcement of research advances that use adult stem cells. There’s much less hype, they claim.

The story is lengthy and has tons of interesting historical, bureaucratic and legislative information. It goes back decades to look at how peoples’ attitudes about embryonic research have changed. It includes President Clinton’s emphatic statement that federal funds should not be used to support the creation of human embryos for research but his support for using human embryos left over from the in vitro fertilization process. Still, no embryos were used for research during his administration.

Anyway, one of the main points of the story is how the major culture war clashes over embryonic stem cell research came to an abrupt end with the November 2007 announcement from leading scientists that they had discovered ways to create pluripotent stem cells without using — much less killing — human embryos.

Stem cells have not been the hot topic they were since that news. Just last week, Rob Stein at the Washington Post wrote up another advance that could help scientists and policymakers sidestep the “moral and political quagmire” of embryonic stem cell research. In one of the few stories on the topic, he noted the significance of the advance from the perspective of opponents of research on human embryos:

In addition to the scientific implications, the work comes at a politically sensitive moment. Scientists are anxiously waiting for President Obama to follow through on his promise to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. Critics of such a move immediately pointed to the work as the latest evidence that the alternative cells make such research unnecessary.

“Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T,” Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said. “No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach.”

biohomeimgsmStein also included the perspective of scientists who said that nothing has been cured as a result of embryonic stem cell research or this newer technique and, as a result, they’d like federal funds for both.

Anyway, let me offer just a few thoughts as we head into the new era of increased federal funds for research that destroys embryos. I’ll be looking for accuracy in reports on Bush’s funding regime, what stem cell research has accomplished and discussion of other means of obtaining pluripotent stem cells that don’t destroy embryos. This should be a big story line for coming days so hopefully we’ll get some good analysis of how this decision lines up with Obama’s Mexico City revision, appointment of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, announcement of his intent to rescind additional health professional conscience protections and other issues of concern to the pro-choice and pro-life communities.

Laura Meckler’s story in the Wall Street Journal looks pretty good. I particularly like her explanation of how some leftover human embryos are donated by parents who used IVF to conceive children. Karen Kaplan’s piece in the Los Angeles Times does a good job of explaining the difference between federal and state taxpayer funds and showing that Bush actually opened up federal funds on stem cell research. Having said that, the story hypes the promise of embryonic stem cells and downplays the promise of stem cells obtained without destroying embryos — a somewhat standard and unsurprising media narrative.

Stein’s look toward Obama’s stem cell decision was focused mainly on the hopes of scientists who stand to gain the taxpayer dollars and he got some great quotes from proponents of embryonic stem cell research, such as this one:

“I don’t personally have any problem creating embryos for embryonic stem cell research,” said Mark A. Kay, a researcher at Stanford University. “But if he decides that embryos that have already been created and are going to be discarded are the ones that would be used, that would be reasonable as well. These things exist and are going to be discarded. It’s really mind-boggling to me these things are going to be discarded and scientists haven’t been allowed to use them to do research.”

Having said that, we’re already getting complaints about the Post‘s latest, which hopefully we can analyze that and the other stories coming out of this decision soon.

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  • Martha

    “It’s really mind-boggling to me these things are going to be discarded and scientists haven’t been allowed to use them to do research.”

    I think that sentence says it all about the atttitudes involved: “things”.

    Hey, Mark, how about all the death-row convicts? I mean, these guys are going to be killed anyway, why shouldn’t scientists be able to use them for drugs trials or spare parts? It’s a crazy waste of resources!

  • Stoo

    Because they’re near-universally agreed on as being people with certain rights, however heinous their deeds, and embryos aren’t.

  • Jerry

    Mollie – 2 posts on the same topic one after the other is I think a GR first.

    First, media coverage of science and especially medicine is at least as bad as media coverage of religion, if not worse. I would certainly not rely on media narratives about what researchers are actually saying.

    I’m glad to see the report about some embryos from IVF being available to parents who want them.

    But what about the rest? It behooves those who are opposed to using those embryos for research to offer an alternative for all of them. The Catholic church’s stand is clear and intellectually and morally consistent on this point. Maybe it exists, but I’ve not seen a clear, consistent alternative from non-Catholics who oppose this research.

    That leads into the significant ethical and moral issue that typically does not get sufficient attention. This issue is whether or not embryos should get deliberately created to be used in research versus using embryos that would be discarded in any event.

    There was a US News Blog posting that asked a couple of key questions. One, from a Jesuit priest suggested something which startled me a bit because of the source:

    Embryos for research should only be excess embryos from fertility clinics, embryos which were going to be destroyed anyway. It should be forbidden to buy, cell or create embryos expressly for research. Researchers should show that their work could not be done with any other form of stem cell — yet. But their goal should be to move toward using only non-embryonic stem cells…

    That strikes me as a quite reasonable statement so I’m wondering (hah) if it has any media legs beyond this one source? Or is this, as usual, being cast as a fight between two extremes.

  • Dave

    Mollie, your strongest point here, in my opinion, is that the MSM ballyhoo the medical potential of embryonic stem cells while underplaying the same potential on the part of adult stem cells.

    I have some hope that my diabetes will someday be cureable by stem cell therapy. My preference is that it be done with cells gathered exclusively from my body. I prefer that to an embryonic path because, given the choice, I’d rather that some woman not be put to the inconvenience and risk of coming up with a human egg for my treatment. She’s not the patient; I am.

    However, on the PBS News Hour tonight I just heard an adult stem cell researcher declare that adult stem cells have been found unable to produce tissues other than the kind they are derived from, versus the “pleuripotent” ability of embryonic stem cells to produce any kind of tissue. If that is the case then the difference in coverage you see may not be bias but rather reflect a fact of different potential for adult and embryonic stem cells.

    That PBS coverage, btw, was a debate between the scientist and a conservative spokesperson. The latter was a complete dud. Rather than directly raise the issue of destroying minute human beings, he tried to frame science as a scary, out-of-control monster and was easily rebutted by the scientist. Any GetReligion column on the subject would have made a better presentation of his side.

  • Martha

    Stoo, I was not actually proposing that seriously (as a matter of fact, I’m anti-death penalty). I was attempting (and, it would appear from your response, failing) the argument reductio ad absurdum.

    But the “logic” is the same: since these entities are only going to be destroyed anyway, why not make use of them? If personhood can be construed as a socially-derived status that we hold upon condition, not as an instrinic right due to our humanity, then it is no great leap to deprive mature entities that may be human of the legal status of personhood, should they fail to meet the conditions set out as defining that status.

    Embryos are not potential human life, they are actual human life. They are not fully developed human life, and that’s the point at which we’re all running around the mulberry bush. It’s absurd, to my way of thinking, to argue that they’re “only” a clump of cells; it is because they are capable of developing all the constituent parts of the human organism that they are so attractive as a source of new tissue.

    In theory, at least. As I understand it, so far when attempts have been made to divert the embryonic stem-cells into developing replacement tissue, you run the very high risk of getting tumours instead. Probably why the supporters of embryonic stem-cell research are so desperate for government funding and plenty of raw material; any cures or therapies are a long way off yet.

  • Julia

    Actually, the Chinese are taking organs from condemned prisoners because they are going to die anyway – why wste the organs. For all we know they are forced to be subjects of experiments, too.

    All across the country, incarcerated prisoners can make money volunteering for medical experiments and drug trials.

    What does Obama think about that? Is it coercive? What’s the science vs politics on that?

  • David

    What do you mean they’re “struggling” to present fair coverage? They most certainly are not! They’re not even trying!

  • Dave2

    Martha wrote:

    If personhood can be construed as a socially-derived status that we hold upon condition, not as an instrinic right due to our humanity

    Be careful, this is a false dilemma. To reject a Homo sapiens criterion of moral personhood is not to accept relativism.

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  • Julia

    One, from a Jesuit priest suggested something which startled me a bit because of the source:

    I checked and, sure enough, it’s Thomas Reese SJ.

    He is also quoted in a much better article from Reuters that gets comments from a lot of sources:

    The Reuters article could be improved by making it clearer what was the situation when Bush did his thing and what it was that Obama actually did. It also uses “stem cell” as shorthand for “embryonic” stem cell like many other publications do, really muddying the situation.

    In another article (whose link I can’t find) reported on a woman who, when asked, said she thought it would be wrong to use a person’s own stem cells to fight a disease.

    These articles need to be clearer on the distinction between “embryonic”, “adult”, “cord blood” and skin cells.
    Most people are confused.

  • Julia

    “We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs,” Varmus said. “This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

    hmmm What about the Manhattan project. Aren’t there a lot of liberal folks for whom that was immoral and should not have been pursued? What about Hiroshima? Isn’t that decried as immoral? If something can be scientifically done, should it be done? If not, then what determines why not?

    Opposition to embryonic stem cell harvesting is not based on dogma or because the Bible told me so, but upon well-thought-out ethical considerations. There are atheists who abhor destruction of embryos.