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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