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Jewish World Review August 16, 2004 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5764

John Leo

John Leo
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Stem cell debate is riddled with dishonesty | John Kerry has repeatedly spoken of President Bush's "ban" on stem cell research. Kerry knows very well it isn't a "ban" or that Bush isn't "shutting down" research. But "ban" is a powerfully emotional word. It has more impact on swing voters than "allowing private research, but not using taxpayer money for work on stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001."

Congressional Democrats have used this maneuver before, accusing Republicans of plans to "cut" Social Security (big emotional impact there) when the Republicans actually just wanted to reduce the rate of increase in funding. "Cut," like "ban," wasn't truthful, just useful.

The fact is that stem cell research is swimming in readily available funds. With luck, the elite press corps will discover this some time in October, and maybe even ask Kerry about it. The federal government is providing $24.8 million in research funds, which is $24.8 million more than President Clinton offered. Money is pouring in from state governments, universities and pharmaceutical companies. If Kerry thinks this financial gusher still amounts to a ban, maybe he could get the Heinz Foundation or George Soros to pitch in.

Kerry spins the stem cell issue by saying, "Here in America, we don't sacrifice science for ideology." This is a line he has been using for weeks. It delivers two messages, both false: (1) there is no legitimate moral issue here (though plenty of bioethicists and plenty of Kerry supporters think there is); and therefore (2) this is a one-sided issue, pitting enlightened people against backward ideological types.

Kerry is demagoging the issue, but in a sophisticated way, echoing the debate at the Scopes trial (science vs. religion) without explicitly raising the religion issue. According to a report in The Washington Post, "ideology trumps science" is the theme of a lobbying effort to discredit objections to more federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

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But Bush did not impose ideology; he came out with a compromise that gave each side of the stem cell debate half a loaf, allowing federal funding and research, but not federal support for work on new stem cell lines. Politicians almost always seek compromises, and here Bush was trying to accommodate people who see no moral problem in working with microscopic embryos, and those (count me in) who don't want to pay scientists to create human beings so they can dismember them for research.

(Yes, "human beings" stacks the argument, implying personhood. We need a different word. They are infinitesimal and not persons, but they are developing human entities. No matter what term you use, you are talking about human life and the issue of whether it is morally acceptable to kill it.)

In his convention speech, Ron Reagan picked up the anti-religious thread of the Democratic stem cell campaign, saying that opponents of stem cell research think the destruction of microscopic embryos is "tantamount to murder," and think that "the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."

But William Saletan of Slate, a fine writer I usually disagree with, pulled an interesting switcheroo on the religion issue last week. Writing on Slate, he said the stem cell research movement has become ideological and is behaving like a religion. Nancy Pelosi talks rapturously of stem cells' "biblical power to cure." Members of Congress have hailed the "medical miracles" just over the horizon and the "strong faith that we will find a cure." Kerry hailed those who "pray each day for a cure" and expressed "full faith" that scientists will do morally correct stem cell research.

Saletan depicts this as a poll-driven religion. None of the diseases most susceptible to stem cell therapy touches more than 17 percent of Americans (affecting a family member, relative or close friend). But when Alzheimer's and President Reagan are tossed into the question, pro-stem cell numbers shoot up to 72 percent approval.

But stem cell research is regarded as extremely unlikely to lead to an Alzheimer's cure. Rick Weiss reported in The Washington Post: "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 stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportion." This misinterpretation has mostly gone unchallenged by scientists and journalists. Stem cell research is likely to help with Parkinson's and other diseases, but it is hyped (falsely) as a probable Alzheimer's cure, because few Americans fear Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease, but a majority are terrified of Alzheimer's.

The lobby for embryonic stem cell funding is deeply dishonest. It involves a "ban" that isn't a ban, a claim of cures "right on our fingertips" (John Kerry) that falsely implies an early cure for Alzheimer's, and a discounting of promising stem cell research that doesn't involve the creation and destruction of embryos (cells from umbilical cords and adult bone marrow and teeth). Kerry and the Democrats have a case to make. They just don't want to make it honestly.

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