Embryos on the line

encyc_bioethicsYesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced 13 new embryonic stem cell lines would be added to the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry. President Barack Obama received a lot of coverage for his decision to change President George W. Bush's policy limiting federal funding for embryonic-destroying stem cell research. The media coverage earlier this year was pretty bad on that point. To review, prior to President Bush there were no federally funded lines. Bush began federal funding of the research -- controversial because it destroys human embryos -- but ordered that only those lines already in existence prior to August 2001 were eligible for said funding. So this is how the Washington Post wrote up the news early yesterday in the article "NIH authorizes use of first human embryonic stem cells under new policy":

The Obama administration Wednesday approved the first human embryonic stem cells for experiments by federally funded scientists under a new policy designed to dramatically expand government support for one of the most promising but also most contentious fields of biomedical research.

So I'm not sure if this headline and paragraph are just horribly unclear or flat-out untrue. These recently approved lines are the first new ones available in eight years, but there have been other embryonic stem cell lines available for federal funding. If one puts the right pauses in the headline and paragraph and imagines a comma or two, then technically it's not incorrect.

On the other hand, I'm just happy that reporter Rob Stein included the important words "federally funded." Back in March when Obama announced his new policy, many reports claimed that embryonic stem cell research had been banned by Bush. Any private sector scientist could destroy however many human embryos he could get a hold of -- and the restriction on which lines could be used with federal funds wasn't a ban either. The fact is that the lines approved for use yesterday were created during the Bush administration.

Well, the headline and story changed later in the day. Here's a more recent version of the opening paragraph:

The Obama administration has begun approving new lines of human embryonic stem cells that are eligible for federally funded experiments, opening the way for millions of taxpayer dollars to be used to conduct research that was put off-limits by President George W. Bush.

So this paragraph takes care of some of the problems mentioned earlier but then adds in a new one. President Bush never declared the research off-limits. Again, if scientists weren't using federal funds in their research, they could do whatever they wanted. Bush's limits -- as the first executive to fund embryonic stem cell research, again -- were on research conducted by federally funded scientists on lines created after 2001.

To be fair, subsequent paragraphs in the story(ies) clarify the issue and many other aspects of this complicated and bureaucratic story, but who's reading by then? Just kidding. And the reporter also did a good job of showing that not all religious adherents share the same views on whether the research is ethical. To wit:

But the announcement was condemned by opponents of the research, who argued that the work is not only unethical but unnecessary, because of the availability of adult stem cells and other more recently identified alternatives.

"Ethically, we don't think any taxpayer should have to fund research that relies on destroying early human life at any stage," said Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But the tragedy of this is multiplied by the fact that no one can think what the problem is that can only be solved by these cells."

Collins, a geneticist and evangelical Christian whose appointment raised concern among some scientists, defended the work.

"I think that there is an argument to be made that what is being done is ethically acceptable," Collins said, "even if you believe in the inherent sanctity of the human embryo."

Now, it would be great to have a bit more information about the significant advances that have been made in inducing pluripotent stem cells that don't destroy embryos but at least it's mentioned (in the later version of the story). Stein also does a fair job of explaining that embryonic stem cell research doesn't have any actual success stories so much as researches hope for successes. In fact, the bulk of the story is a great primer on the debate and who is on which side and why.

I do remember from March how so much of the media narrative on this story, picking up on President Obama's speech announcing the change, was about how politics and ideology would be removed from science and how wonderful that would be. That same narrative hasn't been discussed much by the mainstream press with regard to the recent revelations of politicization at one of the main centers of climate research. I'm not sure why, but I wonder if it was easier to paint opponents of embryonic stem cell research as ideologically biased because of their religious views.

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