William Saletan is one of the great contrarian journalists of our time, and last week in Slate he cut through the thick growth of hype surrounding stem-cell research. In his address to the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan cast the debate in much the same light as the early post-Roe debate about abortion: enlightened science in favor of such research, mere religious humbuggery in opposition to it. Saletan's piece, Revelation of the Nerds, deconstructs a few of the prevailing myths in the debate:
A nonexistent "ban"
Repeating a pledge made by Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention, Kerry promised twice that he would "lift the ban on stem-cell research." But no such ban exists. Embryonic stem-cell research is unrestricted in the private sector. State and local governments can fund it as they wish. The federal government spent nearly $200 million on adult stem-cell research last year and nearly $25 million on research involving the roughly 20 approved embryonic lines."
Stem-cell research as a symbol
A Democratic political strategist told American Demographics, "It's more than just stem-cell research -- it's the symbolism of announcing a plan to eradicate major diseases, and part of the Baby Boomers' health care crisis."
To protect the symbolism, facts must be shaded. Kerry's pollsters must phrase the destruction of embryos in the past tense to dissociate this unpleasant necessity from the benefits of stem-cell research. The research must be insulated from comparative cost-benefit analysis by asking voters, through ballot measures, to designate billions of dollars exclusively for stem-cell work instead of other medical studies. California is now pursuing this; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wants other states to follow suit. Any limit on stem-cell funding must be vilified as immoral.
A miracle cure in the pipeline
The trouble is, the Alzheimer's hype isn't true. On June 10, the [Washington] Post's Rick Weiss reported that "given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer's, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm [for stem cell research] stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions. It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists."
But Saletan's conclusion, while satisfying as a rebuttal to the utopian rhetoric of the stem-cell movement, engages in a similar and troubling formula of science = reason, religion = quackery:
With the salesmanship of a faith healer, Kerry dangled promises no responsible scientist would countenance. "At this very moment, some of the most pioneering cures and treatments are right at our fingertips, but because of the stem-cell ban, they remain beyond our reach," said Kerry. "To those who pray each day for cures that are now beyond our reach -- I want you to know that help is on the way. I want you to hold on, and keep faith, because come next January, when John Edwards and I are sworn into office . . . we're going to lift the ban on stem-cell research."
. . . I want to have faith, John. I want to hope and dream. I want to believe in the magic and the miracles and the power of prayer. But if you want to preserve trust in science, stick to the evidence.