Missing voices in the stem cell debates

MADISON, WI -  MARCH 10:  Jessica Dias, associate research specialist, at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center at University Wisconsin-Madison removes a new batch of Embryonic Stem Cells from deep freeze to be thawed before being worked on March 10, 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin.  On March 9, 2009 President Barack Obama signed an order reversing the Bush administration's limits on human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists at the University Wisconsin-Madison, who were the first to experiment in finding cures to neurological and muscular diseases through stem cell research, are now hoping to receive federal funding to aid in their work. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Reuters has a story about a U.S. district court ruling that may interest GetReligion readers. The lede explains what’s going on best:

A U.S. district court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, in a slap to the Obama administration’s new guidelines on the sensitive issue.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted the injunction because he found that the doctors who challenged the policy would likely succeed because U.S. law blocked federal funding of embryonic stem cell research if the embryos were destroyed.

“(Embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote in a 15-page ruling. The Obama administration could appeal his decision or try to rewrite the guidelines to comply with U.S. law.

I remember the time when reporters had trouble using any modifier when talking about stem cell research. By failing to explain that it was the research that destroyed human embryos that was controversial, it made opponents of that practice seem like they were opposed to all stem cell research. So first off, I simply want to thank Reuters for clearly explaining that the injunction in question deals with human embryonic stem cell research. These are helpful details. And the lede is just nicely written — it’s clear, to the point, and gets the most important details up high.

Now, you don’t have to be Catholic or religiously traditional to oppose stem cell research that destroys human embryos but those groups have carried a lot of water in the ethical battles over the practice. Indeed, the story explains that they brought the suit:

The suit against the National Institutes of Health, backed by some Christian groups opposed to embryo research, had argued the administration’s policy violated U.S. law and took funds from researchers seeking to work with adult stem cells.

And some of these people are quoted in the article. Reuters tried to get the White House, the Justice Department and NIH to comment but they all deferred or refused. Having covered the federal government for many years, this is not surprising.

Still, I really wish the story would have done something to get a balancing perspective in there. As it is, everything is weighted heavily in favor of the ruling. We get good information about the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that bans the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos. And we get a nice timeline of when this became a problem and of Obama’s moves in support of stem cell research that destroys embryos. There’s even a nice discussion of how the plaintiffs overcame legal objections to whether they had standing to bring the suit.

But there’s precisely no comment from people who don’t believe the NIH guidelines violate federal law. Certainly there’s someone outside of the administration who could speak to this. So while the story does a great job of getting religion, it really does need some more balance. I’d be certain to point it out if it went the other way — failing to get the religious voice. I’d like to know if this case is as cut and dry as the story makes it seem.

There is this odd paragraph:

Many stem cell researchers objected, saying they could not do work needed to fulfill the promise of the powerful cells, which can give rise to all the tissues and cells in the human body. Privately funded researchers could do as they pleased, but federal funding is the cornerstone of such basic biological research.

I think that the latest science suggests that most of the promise comes from adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, not from embryonic stem cells. I’m not sure if the above paragraph makes that clear. And, in fact, this is at the root of the issue since the stem cell researchers who filed the suit did so on the grounds that the NIH guidelines violate the law and also harm their work because they direct limited funding away from the more promising research.

Still, a pretty good story from Reuters that I hope will be updated with some perspective from those who defend stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I think that the latest science suggests that most of the promise comes from adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, not from embryonic stem cells.

    It’s a little more mixed than that. Adult stem cells are tailored to the person they come from, but they are difficult to get in quantity and each line helps only one kind of tissue (even with pluripotency).

    Embryonic stem cells can help multiple forms of tissue, and studying them appears to be the best way to find out how to make adult stem cells more flexible. Nor have embryonic stem cells been entirely useless thus far.

    I’d say that adult stem cells show a lot of (relatively) immediate promise. Embryonic stem cells show a lot of (relatively) long-term promise. This is not a comment on the morality of any research programs, of course.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’d like to know if this case is as cut and dry as the story makes it seem.

    Well, the text of the law is pretty explicit:

    SEC. 509. (a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for–
    (1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
    (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR 46.208(a)(2) and Section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act [1](42 U.S.C. 289g(b)) (Title 42, Section 289g(b), United States Code).
    (b) For purposes of this section, the term “human embryo or embryos” includes any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46 (the Human Subject Protection regulations) . . . that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes (sperm or egg) or human diploid cells (cells that have two sets of chromosomes, such as somatic cells).

  • Dave

    Today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer runs a Washington Post story that interviews one Amy Comstock, immediate past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of patient organizations lobbying for federal funding. Comstock called the decision “devastating” and decried the impairment of research. The headline, the lede and Ms Comstock all made it clear it was embryonic research they were talking about. Someone from the Family Research Council was also interviewed, lauding the decision.

  • Bill R.

    That law does seem pretty explicit from the standpoint of embryonic stem cell research, but I’d like to know what legal scholars think of part (b), particularly the word “organism”. It seems that an incredible amount hinges on the definition of this word. If “organism” is broadly construed as any cell or group of cells showing life-like activity (say, metabolism, self-replication, response to stimuli, etc.), then the law seems to forbid research on induced-pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), since they are “derived by… [some] other means from… human diploid cells”. If “organism” is instead construed as something with the potential to develop into a mature adult of the species, then iPSC research would be legally safe, I would think.

  • kjs

    I found the last quote in the piece interesting, and wish it had been further elaborated:

    “By finding that there could be harm to adult stem cell researchers if embryonic stem cell work gets funding, this judge opens the door for every scientist who ever has a grant request rejected on the merits to sue the federal government,” the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said in a statement.

    What are the other areas of funding where similar suits could be brought?

  • Jeffrey

    I think that the latest science suggests that most of the promise comes from adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, not from embryonic stem cells. I’m not sure if the above paragraph makes that clear.

    That’s actually an assumption I’d like to see journalists question and see if we can get beyond spin to find out some hard data. The pro-life activists say this all the time, but I’d love to see some actual reporting.