By now, even I am getting tired of reading about embryonic stem cell research. Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry has made it a campaign issue and the deaths this year of Ronald Reagan, who had Alzheimer’s, and Christopher Reeve, who had a spinal cord injury, have focused attention on the political debate over such research. Two recent items, though, caught my attention. One was a 20-page article by Connie Bruck in the Oct. 18 issue of The New Yorker, the other an eight-page article by Claudia Kalb and Debra Rosenberg, in the Oct. 25 issue of Newsweek. The gist of both articles was that embryonic stem cell research – ESCR for short – is wonderful, on the cusp of curing and treating innumerable diseases and ailments, and that President George W. Bush, in opposing it, opposes science.
Neither is necessarily remarkable on its own, repeating many of the same facts and arguments that have been trotted out since the possibility, with ESCR, of curing diseases such Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and perhaps even cancer, reared its ugly little head a few years ago. The media narrative is one of science versus ideology, or worse, religion. These stories typically ignore the criticism of the hype surrounding ESCR by respected scientists and doctors who believe that the general public has been oversold the promise of cures coming from ESCR. Seldom, if at all, are advances using stem cells derived from less ethically problematic or morally dubious sources, such as fat or skin cells, reported.
In 2001, Bush limited, but did not prohibit, federal funding of ESCR to those stem cell lines that already existed. No new stem cell lines, a process that requires the destruction of a human embryo, would be permitted. Furthermore, ESCR could be pursued through private funding. Pro-lifers should have concerns that Bush did not go all the way and ban ESCR, to fully respect the tiny embryonic human being instead of trying to “balance ethics and science.” He tried to find a middle ground, but for proponents of ESCR, compromise is unacceptable.
So with the National Institutes of Health limited by Bush’s executive order on ESCR, proponents of such research have successfully got a ballot initiative before the California voters for Nov. 2. Numerous scientists, celebrities and sufferers – those affected by various diseases and their families – have lined up behind Proposition 71, which will require the cash-strapped state to issue $3 billion worth of bonds to establish and fund a body that will fund ESCR. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican and the most popular politician in the state, endorsed the measure. Michael J. Fox, the actor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, taped a commercial urging Californians to pass it. Four dozen Nobel laureates have endorsed it. Most important, it is being backed by a $20-million advertising campaign. Prop 71 opponents, supported most prominently by the Catholic church and Howard Abrahamson Jr., an evangelical, have raised less than $200,000. That’s a 100:1 ratio. Not surprisingly, polls show support for the initiative leading by 20 per cent.
But more than the money, are the terms of the debate that are proving to be a major obstacle for proponents of more ethical stem cell research. The media focus on embryonic stem cells so much that when the public think of stem cell research, they automatically think of ESCR, ignorant that there are various sources. (Aside from those taken from the tissue of already-born human beings, as well as umbilical cord blood, aborted or miscarried babies can also provide stem cells.) The Newsweek article provides just three paragraphs, two of them negative, about non-ESCR in its eight-page spread. The New Yorker mentions other forms of stem cell research only to dismiss them as a waste of time.
Advocates of ESCR complain that Bush, and pro-lifers, are putting ideology ahead of science, and that we are ignoring the facts. Of course, they ignore the incredible stories of clinical successes that other forms of stem cell therapies are racking up. In his stump speeches, Kerry said that Bush “just doesn’t get it. Faced with the facts, he turns away.” But those words describe the advocates of ESCR – faced with a much more promising and ethically less problematic possibility of adult stem cell research, they turn away.
The other term of the debate that disadvantages pro-lifers is the specious argument that a cure for cancer (or whatever) will be ready tomorrow if only scientists were released from the shackles of restrictions that Bush has placed on them. But, if there was truly a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes just around the corner, as ESCR advocates claim there is, private investors would be lining up around that corner to fund it. The returns would be out of this world. The reason advocates of ESCR need government funding is precisely because, in all likelihood, cures and therapies are too far down the road, if at all possible, to make investment in such research worthwhile. Call it the wisdom of the marketplace.
Lastly, pro-lifers are defending human life at its tiniest, at a point when it “looks the dot at the end of this sentence” and not a human being – never mind that is exactly what a human being looks like at the embryonic stage. But the pro-ESCR crowd wheels out people with spinal cord injuries or fathers with Alzheimer’s or daughters with juvenile diabetes for their commercials and press conferences. The New Yorker talks about 13-year-old Emma Klatman, who urges California voters to “vote for a cure.”
Seldom do we hear about the Kallsen family, whose children (Kendall, 6, and Kelsea, 13) both have Type I diabetes. Grandfather Carl became involved with the ESCR-supporting Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and campaigned for extended funding of ESCR. On a family trip to Washington D.C., they met with their pro-life congressman, Mark Souder. Many such visits to pro-life legislators have convinced them to abandon their pro-life principles. Senator Orrin Hatch (R, Utah), is now one of the leading advocates of ESCR. But as Ramesh Ponnuru wrote for National Review Online, “The meeting with Souder did not go exactly as planned. They didn’t persuade Souder to support the funding. Instead, he supported them to oppose it.” Souder told them that adult stem cells provided a better hope and did not involve the destruction of human embryos. This, Ponnuru reported, “came as news to Kallsen and his family.”
Actually, these two facts would come as news to most people. These two facts are effectively censured or dismissed as religious or pro-life ideology.
I’ll end this column where Newsweek ends its “report,” with Heather Bace, the mother of a two-year-old son with diabetes. Bace says “I would give my arms, legs and my brain to get this kid healthy.” What the public is not able to understand because of the one-sided media coverage and fundamental dishonesty of the “patient-advocacy” organizations, is that Bace and others are giving someone else’s arms, legs and brain to cure their children.
– Paul Tuns