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9 Things the Media Messed Up About the Obama Stem Cell Story
By Josh Brahm (bio)

The longer I live the less I’m surprised by poor journalism in major media outlets. However, I think the reports about President Obama's recent decision (3/9/09) to force taxpayers to pay for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (HESCR) takes the cake. After reviewing the articles and videos by major media sources, as well as the local media here in Fresno, I offer this analysis of what you likely either missed or were misinformed about if those were your only sources for information.

 
#1. Omitting the importance of iPS cells
   
Who did this?
BBC; NPR; The Guardian; Fresno KMPH (FOX 26); Fresno ABC (Channel 30)
 
Why is it significant?

One of the major areas of the stem cell research debate over the last decade concerns embryonic stem cells that are pluripotent, or pliable, as opposed to adult stem cells that are only multipotent, and supposedly less pliable and useful.

However, It’s worth noting that several studies have indicated that this can be worked around. One study was conducted when a researcher took stem cells from Jackie Rabon’s nose and used them to correct her spinal cord injury. The once paralyzed girl now walks.

 

However, this debate has been completely changed by the research in Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, or iPS cells. These are adult skin cells that scientists may soon be able to reprogram into embryonic-like stem cells, without killing a single human embryo!

This discovery is no small thing. In fact, the ability to reprogram cells like iPS cells was named the “biggest scientific breakthrough of 2008” by Science magazine.

Bernadine Healy, the former head of the pro-HESCR National institutes of Health and the American Red Cross published an article last week in U.S News and World Report. What some may find surprising is her disapproval of Obama’s stem cell policy.

Here are some choice quotes:

  • "Even for strong backers of embryonic stem cell research, the decision is no longer as self-evident as it was, because there is markedly diminished need for expanding these cell lines for either patient therapy or basic research.”
  • "In fact, during the first six weeks of Obama's term, several events reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells, once thought to hold the cure for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes, are obsolete.”
  • “To date, most of the stem cell triumphs that the public hears about involve the infusion of adult stem cells. We've just recently seen separate research reports of patients with spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis benefiting from adult stem cell therapy.”
  • “A second kind of stem cell that has triumphed is an entirely new creation called iPS (short for induced pluripotent stem cell), a blockbuster discovery made in late 2007.”

Obviously there is still more work to be done, and the jury is still out on whether iPS cell research can be done ethically. There is no question however on whether we can ethically pursue HESCR. We cannot ethically conduct Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research as long as human embryos are being killed for their body parts.

Amazingly, not only did most media outlets fail to report on iPS cells, but it looks like they all left out the fact that President Obama rescinded President Bush’s executive order funding Adult Stem Cell Research (ASCR). Now who’s anti-science?

 
#2. Omitting that the diseases everyone is talking about curing (diabetes, Parkinson's, paralysis) have already been treated with adult stem cells.
   
Who did this?
CBS News; New York Times; LA Times; Newsweek; BBC; NPR; The Guardian; Fresno KMPH (FOX 26); Fresno ABC (Channel 30); Fresno CBS (Channel 47)
 
Why is it significant?
The reason so many Americans support the killing of human embryos for research is because of the desire to see diseases cured. Perhaps if more Americans understood that this can be accomplished without killing human embryos, maybe this “complicated moral decision” would suddenly not be so tough.
   

Naturally we want to see people afflicted with painful diseases treated or even cured, but IF these embryos are individual living human beings, as science says they are, THEN we should not kill them for their body parts. Of course, if it can be proven scientifically that these embryos are not human beings then I will promptly withdraw my objection and put my full support behind this research.

I patiently wait for even one person to make a good scientific argument that the embryos used in human embryonic stem cell research are not human…but I'm not holding my breath.

 
#3. Perpetuating the myth that stem cell research will likely cure Alzheimer's disease
 
Who did this?
 
Why is it significant?

No one disagrees with the fact that Alzheimer's is a heartwrenching and tragic disease. On a personal note, I volunteered as a pianist for a nursing home serving Alzheimer's patients for several years. After watching the disease slowly take over the minds of

my audience, I can empathize with those who have a parent, grandparent or other loved one suffering from this condition.

HESCR advocates have included Alzheimer's in their list of talking points for years when talking about what diseases may be cured. This has caused Nancy Reagan to become a public supporter of HESCR, but it seems that Mrs. Reagan and many others have been misinformed.

According to Wesley Smith, writing in The Weekly Standard,

"Researchers have apparently known for some time that embryonic stem cells will not be an effective treatment for Alzheimer's, because as two researchers told a Senate subcommittee in May, it is a 'whole brain disease,' rather than a cellular disorder (such as Parkinson's). This has generally been kept out of the news. But now, Washington Post correspondent Rick Weiss, has blown the lid off of the scam, reporting that while useful abstract information might be gleaned about Alzheimer's through embryonic stem cell research, 'stem cell experts confess . . . that of all the diseases that may be someday cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer's is among the least likely to benefit.'"

This doesn't mean Alzheimer's disease won't ever be cured. It just means that the cure will probably not come from stem cell research, of any kind. It will probably be a separate area of scientific research. It is therefore, at best, disingenuous for pro-HESCR advocates to continue to claim that Alzheimer's disease will likely be cured by their research.

 
#4. Omitting the dangers of HESCR
   
Who did this?
ABC News; CBS News; New York Times; LA Times; Newsweek; BBC; NPR; The Guardian; Fresno KMPH (FOX 26); Fresno ABC (Channel 30); Fresno CBS (Channel 47)
 
Why is it significant?
Because we just might kill some adult human beings by starting human clinical trials prematurely. See,
something interesting happens during about 50% of animal trials with embryonic stem cell research: the stem cells form tumors. (Just what America needs - more cancer.) Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become anything, but scientists have not yet learned how to harness that power. In other words, although scientists can engineer some ESC's to become a particular cell type, and sometimes the stem cell obeys, and sometimes it doesn’t.


For example, a man in China had embryonic stem cells transplanted into his brain to cure Parkinson’s disease. While some of the stem cells became brain cells like they were supposed to, the others became hair and bone cells! The man died a painful death as bone tissue grew into his brain and killed him. (1)

Another shocking result occurred at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March, 2001. In some of the patients, the implanted embryonic cells apparently grew too well, churning out so much of a chemical that controls movement that the patients writhed and jerked uncontrollably. Dr. Paul E. Greene called the uncontrollable movements developed by some patients as “absolutely devastating.” The New York Times quoted him saying,

“They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend. It’s a real nightmare. And we can’t selectively turn it off. No more fetal transplants. We are absolutely and adamantly convinced that this should be considered for research only.”

More recently, news came out in February 2009 that fetal stem cells injected into a young boy in Israel caused disabling, if not deadly, tumors. (2) Bernadine Healy included this story in her article, saying that the news should cause Obama to instruct the Food and Drug Administration to "take another look" at its decision to allow the biotech firm Geron to use embryonic stem cells in a clinical trial involving human patients.

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith made a similar point:

"Which brings us to the Geron license from the FDA. Geron's work with its product has been exclusively with mice, which were not kept alive nearly the four years it took for this patient to develop stem cell-caused tumors. This raises a question of whether, in light of this report, the FDA should revisit its go ahead to Geron to use ES cell-derived cells in human beings,particularly since it might take years to learn whether the product causes tumors."

Of course, there are afflicted people that are willing to risk such gruesome results, in hopes of being able to recover. This is certainly understandable, and even laudable, as their risk, in addition to helping to cure their own disease, may allow scientists to come closer to curing others. But these patients have two possible methods of experimental treatment: HESCR, which has not produced a single effective treatment and has resulted in painful and gruesome ends, and ASCR, which has produced cures, and has not had such dangerous consequences. Why then does President Obama push funding for the method that does not work, and pull funding for the method that does?

 
#5. Confusing or combining reproductive cloning with research cloning
 
Who did this?
CBS News; New York Times; LA Times; Fresno KMPH (FOX 26); Fresno ABC (Channel 30); Fresno CBS (Channel 47)
 
Why is it significant?
There are two different types of cloning: reproductive cloning, and research cloning. The term "reproductive cloning" has been used to describe when a human clone is implanted and delivered as a full term pregnancy. "Research,"

"experimental" or "therapeutic cloning" have been the terms used for the other type of cloning. In this, a human embryo is cloned and experimented upon in his or her first few weeks of life and then killed.

Opinion polls show that the vast majority of Americans disapprove of both types of cloning. (83% against reproductive cloning, versus 81% against research cloning.) (3)

In another poll asking Americans to rate the morality of 16 social issues, 86% said human cloning was morally wrong. In fact, the only social issues ranked lower than human cloning were extramarital affairs and polygamy! (4)

Many media outlets noted that President Obama supposedly condemned cloning, saying “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.”

Read that again. Did President Obama condemn all human cloning, or did he only condemn reproductive cloning?

Amazing! We just figured out what practically every other media outlet missed.

By the way, the only reason the list of media outlets that missed this is shorter than the first three on this list is because most of them didn’t mention cloning in their article. Fox News is the only media outlet who mentioned Obama’s remarks on cloning and then explained the difference between reproductive and research cloning.

Obama's careful wording here is similar to the misleading language used in last year's "Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act," sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. This bill doesn't close the door on cloning, it simply redefine's cloning so that only reproductive cloning counts, and research cloning becomes referred to as "nuclear transplantation research." Redefining words like that is clever, but it's also extremely deceptive to the general public.

Why would scientists want access to research cloning when they already have the right and the government funding to use “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization for research? One reason: there is simply not enough “leftover” embryos to produce the results HESCR scientists have been promising for years.

People from both sides of the debate often talk about 400,000 or 500,000 frozen embryos that could be researched on. This number is simply incorrect. There ARE that many embryos currently frozen, but most of them are NOT available for research. Most of them are being held for later use by their families. According to a 2002 study, only 2.8% of the nation’s frozen embryos, roughly 11,000 total, were designated for research. (5) Only a small number of those 11,000 embryos would actually yield stem cells. Using what it calls “a conservative estimate” the study calculated that only about 275 stem cell lines could actually be developed from the embryos available for research. And even then, the study concedes that this number “is probably an overestimate.”

There is general agreement in the U.S. that the selling of body parts, even for medical transplantation is immoral. The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 (NOTA) bans the buying and selling of organs, and the Senate Report accompanying NOTA stated that "human body parts should not be viewed as commodities." This is not too far from what would be happening with research cloning. Yet instead of merely purchasing a body part for transplantation, we taxpayers would be funding the mass creation of human beings for the sole purpose of killing them for their body parts. In a future and hypothetical sense, the movie "The Island" posed the same question as a premise for their storyline: rich celebrities pay a bio-tech corporation to grow their own clone underground, so that when the celebrity has a future health problem, his or her clone can be killed and the clone’s body parts harvested to prolong the celebrities life.

What does it mean for our society morally and ethically when we are creating human beings for their body parts?

 
#6. Creating a false choice that “leftover” embryos will either be used for research or be killed
 
Who did this?
  • CBS News: "Mr. Bush and his supporters said they were defending human life; days-old embryos - typically from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away - are destroyed for the stem cells."
  • Fox News: "Dr. Curt Civin, whose research allowed scientists to isolate stem cells and who now serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, disagrees with those who say embryonic stem cell research is morally wrong. "This was already life that was going to be destroyed," he said. "The choice is throw them away or use them for research."
  • Newsweek: Quoting Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), a pro-HESCR advocacy group: "Personally, I have trouble with the ethical argument that it is inappropriate to use these embryos to save lives, but somehow it's appropriate to throw them in the Dumpster. I don't understand that."
 
Why is it significant?

Those are not the only choices. Human embryos that are no longer wanted by the family can also be placed for adoption. Organizations like Snowflakes have been helping couples through embryo adoption for years now. President Bush has even flown several of these families to the White House to stand behind him when talking about the issue, pointing to the babies, and remarking that “these boys and girls are not spare parts.”

Families would have to consent to having the embryos adopted, and I think many families would make this choice if told about the possibility. Many view adoption as a much better option than donating living embryos to be killed for research that can be done without killing anybody.

 
#7. Dehumanizing human embryos
 
Who did this?
  • ABC News: “Embryos, which are balls of cells created by putting a sperm cell and an egg cell together and allowing the result to divide, are valuable to researchers because they represent a source of undifferentiated cells not programmed to be any type of cell in particular.”
  • CBS News: “First off, let’s talk about what embryonic stem cell research entails. An embryo is ‘a clump of cells that would fit barely on the head of a pin,’ as Susan L. Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, says.”
 
Why is it significant?
It’s much easier to pacify our feelings toward human destruction if the people in question are dehumanized. Who would care about a simple “ball of cells?” But embryologists know that there is so much more going on here than a simple clump of cells.
   

"In the hours of conception every aspect of the genetic inheritance for a new individual will be determined once and for all: to be a boy or girl, with brown, or with blue eyes, fair or dark, tall or short; all the rich detail of physical attributes from head to toes... The new genetic program is achieved when the two parent pronuclei come to lie side by side within the egg for perhaps a day, as their contents combine in the ultimate biological union of male and female. In the instant when the union is consummated, the whole egg substance divides into two entirely new cells, identical to one another. These are the first two cells of the baby-to-be. So begins the first day of the first nine months of life." (6)

Beginning Life, Geraldine Lux Flanagan, 1996

   

“The only thing necessary for [the embryo’s] growth and development, as with the rest of us, is oxygen, food, water, and healthy interaction with its natural environment, because this organism, like the newborn, the infant, and the adolescent, needs only to develop in accordance with her given nature that is present at conception.” (7)

Francis Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, 2007

   
#8. Responding to a Strawman argument that pro-lifers are concerned about embryos being misused in laboratories (other than killing them)
 
Who did this?
  • Fresno ABC (Channel 30): “As for the fear that embryos will be misused in the laboratory, Dr. Bush says there are many checks and balances in place to prevent that. "They have to be donated, "he said, "There has to be consent from the individuals. It's not some mad scientist in the lab doing Frankenstein kind of science. There is a protocol that has to be followed.”
 
Why is it significant?
According to LogicalFallacies.info, "a straw man argument is one that misrepresents a position in order to make it appear weaker

than it actually is, refutes this misrepresentation of the position, and then concludes that the real position has been refuted. This, of course, is a fallacy, because the position that has been claimed to be refuted is different to that which has actually been refuted; the real target of the argument is untouched by it."

Pro-lifers are not concerned about embryos being misused in a laboratory. We are concerned about embryos being killed in a laboratory. The protocols being followed end with the embryo being killed. I don’t think HESC researchers are “mad scientists” doing “Frankenstein science.” I think these are scientists that have a different view of the value of young human beings than many Americans, and that is the concern.

 
#9. Bush’s policy restricted tax dollars being used on “all” stem cell research
 
Who did this?
  • Fresno ABC (Channel 30): "President Obama makes another sharp break with his predecessor making a symbolic change in signing off on the use of taxpayer funds for stem cell research. In 2001 President George W. Bush limited the use of taxpayer money for stem cell research out of concern about the destruction of human embryos."
 
Why is it significant?

President Bush’s stem cell policy did not restrict tax dollars for stem cell research. It restricted tax

dollars to be used to kill more human embryos. It allowed tax dollars to be spent on research using the embryonic stem cell lines that had already been created, as well as funding research with adult stem cells.

On the contrary, President Obama is the one restricting tax dollars for stem cell research. In fact the only type of stem cell research President Obama seems interested in funding is the very type that has consistently failed to produce any positive results.

Another common misnomer is that President Bush outlawed embryonic stem cell research. He didn’t. Scientists have always been able to conduct HESCR, even during every year of President Bush’s term in office; they just had to use private funding to do their research. However this doesn’t always make it easy for HESCR scientists because private funding for HESCR has dropped steadily, because HESCR is simply one of the worst investments ever. Millions of dollars have been spent on this and there has still been no return. There’s the idea of a return, but adult stem cell research has successfully treated at least 73 diseases! Thus much of the private money has gone into non-HESCR therapies which are showing greater return.

Ironically, Investor's Business Daily just published an editorial on why private investors have been fleeing from HESCR for some time now. According to them:

  • "The president keeps a promise by lifting restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — what he calls "the gold standard" of such research. Judging by results, fool's gold is more like it."
  • "What has handcuffed our scientists is the difficulty of controlling embryonic stem cells and what they develop into."
  • "Venture capitalists think IPS cells are promising and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Last year, Kleiner Perkins, the veteran Silicon Valley venture capital firm that helped found the biotechnology industry, announced it was backing a new Bay Area company, iZumi Bio Inc., which will work on further developing the technology for creating and using IPS cells developed from adult stem cells."
  • " If embryonic stem cells are so promising, why aren't venture capitalists lining up and why does ESCR need federal funding?"
 
Conclusion

To be clear, I'm not offended that major media outlets aren't advocating the pro-life position. They shouldn't advocate for either side. However they should attempt to present the pertinent facts in any given story to help the public gain a well-rounded understanding of the issues at hand. This simply didn't happen in the Obama/stem cell story.

This is not a small news story, ladies and gentlemen. This isn’t like a news channel failing to report that a large freeway is shut down due to an accident, and a bunch of people are late for work. This is a major event with profound moral and societal implications. President Obama left the door open to allowing American scientists to grow human beings for their body parts. This is a major ethical issue, not a trivial question about whether you should go vegan or not, and the mass media decided that it wasn’t important.

We should be ever vigilant keeping our eyes and ears wide open when watching the news, looking out for any bias or obvious omissions of facts. We can only do that if we are already informed about the issue. Don't depend on major media outlets to educate you. Look for the facts yourself.

P.S. There are some great stem cell research resources on the web, including StemCellAnswers.com, StemCellResearch.org and Wesley Smith's blog.

 
 

Sources:
1: "Survival and proliferation of nonneural tissues, with obstruction of cerebral ventricles, in a parkinsonian patient treated with fetal allografts.” Neurology, Volume 46, Issue 5. May 1, 1996.
2: Ninette Amariglio, Abraham Hirshberg, Bernd W. Scheithauer, Yoram Cohen, Ron Loewenthal, Luba Trakhtenbrot, Nurit Paz, Maya Koren- Michowitz, Dalia Waldman, Leonor Leider-Trejo, Amos Toren, Shlomi Constantini, Gideon Rechavi. PLoS Med Vol. 6, No. 2, e1000029, published online 17 February 2009. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000029.
3: International Communications Research, surveyed over 1,000 adults, May 19-23, 2006. Download PDF.
4: Gallup poll, surveyed over 1,000 adults, May 10-13, 2007.
5: 2002 survey by the RAND Corporation of IVF clinics in the U.S. 
6: Flanagan, Geraldine Lux, Beginning Life. New York: DK, 1996. pp. 14, 23.
7: Beckwith, Francis. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 67-68.

 
 
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If you liked this article, you might also like "8 Bad Arguments for Embryonic Stem Cell Research" or "Stem Cell Research - What You Need to Know." Check back soon for more articles!

Josh Brahm is the Director of Education for Right to Life of Central California's Fresno/Madera Office. He hosts a weekly youth-oriented pro-life podcast: "Life Report - Pro-Life Talk. Real World Answers." Josh is available to speak to your church or school. Click here for his bio/vitae.

 
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