Because science is important

There was one part of a Rasmussen poll about President Barack Obama's decision to expand stem cell research that destroys embryos that I found particularly interesting:

Seventy-nine percent (79%) of voters say they have followed the issue of stem cell research at least somewhat closely, including 40% who say they have followed it very closely. Just four percent (4%) say they haven't followed it at all.

Now, I assume former President Bill Clinton would be one of the people who considers himself fairly well versed in the issue. He was, in fact, interviewed as an expert on the matter this week on CNN. President Clinton, a Rhodes scholar, is no dummy. He was the leader of the United States when the ethical debates over experiments on human embryos began. He made policy decisions relating to the issue.

And yet, it appears, he has no idea that the embryos in question are humans just a few days old. He repeatedly -- repeatedly -- states that the embryos have not been fertilized. He believes, apparently, that human embryos are unfertilized eggs. That makes no scientific sense, of course, but it shows a remarkable ignorance about what is going on with embryonic stem cell research.

Here's the relevant portion of the transcript in which he was interviewed by medical doctor Sanjay Gupta:

GUPTA: Let's talk about something you talked a lot about in the early part of your presidency, stem cells. There was an order today providing federal money for embryonic stem cell research. First of all, let me just ask you, as someone who studied this, is this going to always be as divisive an issue as it is now? Is this going to be the abortion of the next generation? Or are people going to come around?

CLINTON: I think -- the answer is I think that we'll work it through. If -- particularly if it's done right. If it's obvious that we're not taking embryos that can -- that under any conceivable scenario would be used for a process that would allow them to be fertilized and become little babies, and I think if it's obvious that we're not talking about some science fiction cloning of human beings, then I think the American people will support this. . . .

GUPTA: Any reservations?

CLINTON: I don't know that I have any reservations, but I was -- he has apparently decided to leave to the relevant professional committees the definition of which frozen embryos are basically going to be discarded, because they're not going to be fertilized. I believe the American people believe it's a pro-life decision to use an embryo that's frozen and never going to be fertilized for embryonic stem cell research, especially since now, not withstanding some promising developments, most of the scientists in this field and the doctors will tell you they don't know of any other source as good as embryonic stem cells for all the various things that need to be researched.

But those committees need to be really careful to make sure if they don't want a big storm to be stirred up here, that any of the embryos that are used clearly have been placed beyond the pale of being fertilized before their use. There are a large number of embryos that we know are never going to be fertilized, where the people who are in control of them have made that clear. The research ought to be confined to those.

Sanjay's response to all of this breathtaking misinformation and ignorance was not to correct President Clinton or to point out that he was gravely mistaken about the issue, but, rather, to say, "Thank you, Mr. President." Perhaps he could have asked, "If we were talking about humans who are only a few days old, would you feel differently?" And then explain that that's precisely what we're talking about.

Now, if President Clinton doesn't understand the science behind this debate, I'm pretty sure that those 79 percent of poll respondents don't either.

I know the media are capable of correcting elected officials -- I've seen them do it frequently. If, say, President George W. Bush said something scientifically indefensible, I imagine we would not only have seen a correction but many reports and stories.

In the micro sense, this medical doctor-journalist should have pointed out that President Clinton's claims were not matched by reality. In the macro sense, if this doesn't point out that Americans are largely ignorant of the underlying ethical issues at play, I don't know what would. (Here's much more about how well the American public understands embryonic stem cell research.) It seems the media -- so interested in SCIENCE, as we were repeatedly reminded this week -- would have an interest in correcting this major mis, uh, misconception.

What possible interest would they have in failing to do so?

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