Selling Alternatives Short
Good news for humanity is bad news to some.


Ramesh Ponnuru

You’d think it would be good news when scientists make a stem-cell breakthrough to which nobody objects. But for some people, it’s bad news that has to be spun away.

Yesterday, two analysts with the liberal Center for American Progress accused the White House of “misrepresent[ing] the potential of discovering and using alternatives to embryonic stem cells.” Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger may not be deliberately misrepresenting anything themselves, but they’re sure not presenting the truth either.

Their claim is that the White House is exaggerating the potential of types of stem-cell research that do not involve killing human embryos. But they make that case only by distorting both the administration’s record and the science. So, for example, Moreno and Berger say that a White House paper describes one method of deriving stem cells, the reprogramming of adult cells, as “promising.” They say that the paper cites only two studies on this point. They then note that James Battey had called this type of research “pie in the sky.”

In context, however, the White House paper is saying only that reprogramming is one of the most promising of the alternative approaches. Which is true. What isn’t true is the claim that the paper cites only two studies. The paper also cites a survey article that reviewed nine approaches to reprogramming. This field isn’t fallow. Finally, Battey’s pie-in-the-sky comment referred only to the unlikelihood that reprogramming research would yield any cures in the near term. The embryo-killing research that Moreno and Berger favor is open to the same critique.

Moreno and Berger brush away this week’s news about stem cells found in amniotic fluid. They say that “scientists across the country,” including the researcher responsible for the paper about amniotic-fluid stem cells, have said that “these stem cells will not replace embryonic stem cells, and likely cannot differentiate into as many types of cells.” It’s true that the researcher has come out in favor of federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research — a policy conclusion which he is perfectly entitled to reach. But he has also said that amniotic-fluid stem cells have produced every type of cell that they have tried to produce so far. In this respect, they’re on par with embryonic stem cells. (We have only an informed conjecture that embryonic stem cells can produce any kind of cell.)

Again and again, this duo treats readers to double standards. Alternative approaches can be dismissed whenever promising findings haven’t been reproduced; but findings favorable to embryonic stem-cell research are taken to the bank, whether or not they’re reproduced. The long-term potential for embryo-destructive research is emphasized; the failure of alternative approaches to produce immediate results is held against them. Data is cherry-picked to show that the absence of taxpayer funding for embryo-destructive research has hurt American competitiveness; contrary evidence is ignored.

One of the great fake bits of data in this debate — the “400,000 excess embryos stored in fertility clinics” — makes a return appearance. To repeat: We know that number from a study that also showed that fewer than three percent of those embryos would be available for research. That’s still a lot of embryos, obviously. But as a selling point for embryo-destructive research, it’s kind of mystifying. Is there a shortage of amniotic fluid? Of umbilical-cord blood? Of adult cells that can be reprogrammed?

American progress should be built on sturdier foundations than these.


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