Last week, the liberal Center for American Progress ran an article dismissing the prospects for getting pluripotent stem cells without killing human embryos, and trashing the White House to boot. I thought the article, by Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger, got the story wrong, although I was careful not to attribute any intentional dishonesty to them. Two days ago, they came back at me with an almost entirely ad hominem response.
They spend a fair amount of time hitting their readers over the head with the fact that I’m not a scientist. True enough. Neither are they, by the way: Moreno is a professional bioethicist, and Berger’s expertise seems to consist of having founded a sketch-comedy group. Who cares? Either their arguments add up, or they don’t.
They don’t — and this time, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they’re being devious.
In their statement last week, they claimed that “there is a ready supply of 400,000 excess embryos stored in fertility clinics around the country.” I pointed out that less than 3 percent of those “excess” embryos are potentially available for research. Their riposte is that 3 percent of 400,000 is 12,000, which is still a large number. That is correct. So why did they use the misleading larger number in the first place? If they actually read the study on which they’re relying, by the way, they would learn that at most only 275 stem-cell lines could be created from the available embryos. That’s not much more than we have now, and these lines would add nothing in terms of genetic diversity or disease specificity.
There is also another point, which I made but they ignore: The existence of a “ready supply” of embryos is not a good argument for doing research on embryonic stem cells rather than amniotic-fluid stem cells, since there is a “ready supply” of amniotic fluid as well.
The rest of their comeback is of a piece. They neither deny nor acknowledge that they mischaracterized the White House’s paper on stem cells in exactly the ways I said they did.
They do at least try to dispute my characterization of comments by stem-cell scientist James Battey. They quoted Battey saying that non-embryonic sources of pluripotent stem cells were “pie in the sky” stuff; I noted that he was merely saying that we weren’t near clinical applications, just as we are not with embryonic stem cells. Moreno and Berger make a great show of quoting Battey at length — but they cut off his comments right at the point where he starts to prove my case. They have his quote ending with the line about one alternative approach being pie-in-the-sky. His next sentence concerns how this approach would lead to clinical treatments. Then: “Now, we are many, many years off, I think, from being able to do this clinically, but I find this is a very exciting area.”
In other words: What Battey was saying was that we’re a long way off from getting any clinical applications out of this alternative type of research — which is exactly what I said he said, rather than what CAP said he said.
The lead researcher in the amniotic-fluid-stem-cell paper, Dr. Anthony Atala, supports embryonic-stem-cell research. I said that his statement of support registered his “policy conclusion,” not any scientific finding. Moreno and Berger say I’m wrong. They quote the researcher: “Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion.” Atala is simply saying that embryonic-stem-cell research should proceed, and not be stopped in favor of amniotic-fluid-stem-cell research. That’s a reasonable conclusion to reach about what our policy should be. But that’s what it is: a policy conclusion.
Let’s imagine that Atala had said something like the following: “It’s not clear that amniotic-fluid stem cells can differentiate into as many types of cells as embryonic stem cells. Therefore, my research is no substitute for embryonic-stem-cell research, which needs federal support.” That would be a scientific claim leading to a policy conclusion. Atala did not, however, make that claim — although Moreno and Berger falsely said that he had.
CAP’s statement last week was shoddy, and this week’s is slippery.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is an NR senior editor and author of The Party of Death.