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Social Issues: Bioethics

Stem Cell Research


June 22, 2001 -- SHOULD the government fund medical research that relies on the use of "stem cells" extracted from human embryos? This difficult moral decision would be a lot easier if the media weren't failing to tell the public the whole story.

Embryo-stem-cell research promises to produce medical miracles in a host of areas. But other research avenues - including the use of cells that don't come from human embryos - are also promising, perhaps more so. Unfortunately, journalists and editors haven't reported this news fully or fairly.

The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-partisan research organization devoted to the accurate use of scientific research in public-policy debates, has documented how journalists have fallen down on the job on this issue.

In its recent report "Stemming the News Flow?" STATS decried a "striking" selectivity in coverage: The media often play up embryonic-stem-cell breakthroughs while giving short shrift to equivalent (or even more promising) adult-stem-cell successes.

* In separate experiments, scientists researched the ability of embryonic and adult mouse pancreatic stem cells to regenerate the body's ability to make insulin. Both types of cells boosted insulin production in diabetic mice. The embryonic success made a big splash with prominent coverage in all major media outlets. Yet the same media organs were strangely silent about the research involving adult cells.

Stranger still, the adult-cell experiment was far more successful - it raised insulin levels much more. Indeed, those diabetic mice lived, while the mice treated with embryonic cells all died. Why did the media celebrate the less successful experiment and ignore the more successful one?

* Another barely reported story is that alternative-source stem cells are already healing human illnesses. In Los Angeles, the transplantation of stem cells harvested from umbilical-cord blood has saved the lives of three young boys born with defective immune systems.

Rather than receiving bone marrow transplants, the three boys underwent stem cell therapy. The experimental procedure worked. Two years post-surgery, their doctors at UCLA Medical Center pronounced the boys cured. Last year, Israeli scientists implanted Melissa Holley's white blood cells into her spinal cord to treat the paraplegia caused when her spinal cord was severed in an auto accident. Melissa, who is 18, has since regained control over her bladder and recovered significant motor function in her limbs - she can now move her legs and toes, although she cannot yet walk.

This is exactly the kind of therapy that embryonic-stem-cell proponents promise - years down the road. Yet Melissa's breakthrough was met with collective yawns in the press with the exception of Canada's The Globe and Mail.

Non-embryonic stem cells may be as common as beach sand. They have been successfully extracted from umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat, cadaver brains, bone marrow, and tissues of the spleen, pancreas, and other organs. Even more astounding, the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep successfully created cow heart tissue using stem cells from cow skin. And just this week, Singapore scientists announced that they have transformed bone-marrow cells into heart muscle.

Research with these cells also has a distinct moral advantage: It doesn't require the destruction of a human embryo. You don't have to be pro-life to be more comfortable with that.

So why does the more ethically problematic research get such better press? Well, it sure looks like bias, conscious or not: Most reporters and editors call themselves pro-choice on abortion. And many see support of embryonic-stem-cell research as consistent with (or even supportive of) this point of view.

But abortion is actually quite beside the point in this debate - there is no pregnant woman being asked to gestate a child she does not want. Thus, one can both support abortion rights and oppose embryonic research without any inconsistency.

In the end, this debate turns on two questions. The tougher one is: Is such research immoral, since it destroys human life and transforms it into a mere commodity? The second: Can we reap equivalent medical benefits using alternative sources?

The answer to that seems to be "yes." If the press were doing its job, giving an honest answer to the "hard" question would be far less painful.

Attorney and consumer advocate Wesley J. Smith is the author of "Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America."

*Reprinted from The New York Post by permission of the author

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