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Stem Cell Journalism


The latest Time magazine has a cover story entitled “Stem Cell Research: The Quest Resumes” by Alice Park. It was presumably written under the assumption that the Obama administration would have reversed the Bush stem cell policy by now, which hasn’t happened yet, though it surely will. But more importantly, it’s an astonishingly inaccurate story, badly confusing not only scientific facts but the basic history of the political fight over stem cells.

Park, for instance, describes the early development of stem cell science and then writes:

Then, in 2001, everything changed. The use of discarded embryos made embryonic-stem-cell research deeply controversial in the U.S. Citing moral concerns, then President Bush restricted federal funding for the study of human embryonic stem cells. Under the new policy, U.S. government funds could be used only to study the dozens of embryonic cell lines already in existence — many of which proved not to be viable.

This makes it sound like the government had been funding the research and Bush stopped it. But actually Bush’s decision made federal dollars available for the first time, it just didn’t go as far as the researchers wanted, because it allowed the funds to be used only on existing lines of cells, rather than newly created ones—to avoid using taxpayer money as an incentive for the further destruction of human embryos. Park’s description of the Bush-approved lines as basically useless is also vastly exaggerated: they are easily the most widely used cell lines in the world, even in projects not funded by the government. The FDA’s approval of the first ever human trial using embryonic stem cells last week (which Park notes) involved a line of cells approved for funding under the policy (which she does not note).

Park also confuses human cloning with new alternative techniques for producing pluripotent stem cells that do not require the use of embryos, and then she asserts that these new techniques brought about a change in federal policy, writing of Harvard researcher Douglas Melton and of the newly developed techniques:

Both as a scientist and as a father, Melton remained convinced that the federal restrictions simply could not survive. He continued to insist that “the science is so significant that it will change the policy.” And then, astonishingly, it did.

Actually it didn’t. The Bush policy encouraged the development of the ethically uncontroversial alternative techniques (though efforts in that direction would surely have proceeded in any case), and the successes we’ve seen on that front confirm the conviction at the core of the Bush policy: that science and ethics did not need to be set against each other, but could be championed together with the right kind of policies and the right kind of scientific techniques. The new techniques were supported and funded under the policy, they didn’t change it; it’s still in place now.

The facts Park is working with suggest that we need not ignore the humanity of human embryos for the sake of science—though she does her best to rearrange these facts to argue otherwise.