Politics and Ignorance Shape Journalistic Bias of Stem Cell Reporting

Filed in Politics, Science, Social IssuesTags: Cloning, Missouri, Sanctity of Life, Stem Cells

I had a bit of difficulty getting to the meat of this opening article of a multi-part series to appear this week in the Columbia Missourian, as the article spends several paragraphs attempting to evoke an emotional connection to the two protagonists: each disabled, and each on differing sides of the Stem Cell Initiative issue. Note: I appreciate the reporter finding equal time for both sides of the issue; however, comparing and contrasting the stories of two disabled people with respect to this issue in no way contributes to putting forth the facts surrounding the issue. Doing so only serves to appeal to emotion, and could be construed to be using their respective disabilities to "sell" the story, much as the Coalition continues to use plight of the disabled in their attempts to gain support for the Initiative.

Anyway, I'll pick up the article at the section titled "Is Breakthrough Possible?" Several statements need parsing:

Both Rob and Kara Clardy are hopeful that stem cell research and passage of a constitutional amendment in November will yield results both for people suffering and for the state as a whole.

First, once again, the issue is obfuscated by using the all-encompassing "stem cell research", when what is implied is "embryonic stem cell research." The distinction is small, but significant. I will address its significance in a moment. Second, this statement alludes to embryonic stem cell (ESC) research's dirty little secret: in the end, it's all about the money. Much more on that point in the days to come.

Embryonic stem cell research has not produced any major results for humans, but scientists are excited about an experiment that John McDonald conducted on rats.

...has not produced any major results for humans? How about, has not produced any results whatsoever.

While at Washington University, McDonald studied 62 rats whose spinal cords had been severed, thereby making them incapable of using their legs. Twenty-eight of the rats were treated with somatic cell nuclear transfer, the process used in embryonic stem cell research.

Whoops; someone needs an editor. Perhaps the rats were treated with stem cells derived from embryoes resulting from Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), but they were in no way "treated" with SCNT, which is a cloning method, not a treatment or therapy for a disease or disability. It is this kind of journalistic sloppiness that prevents the average person from understanding the issue fully. Intentionally or unintentionally (in this case, I suspect the latter), this kind of carelessness will result in an uninformed electorate going to the Missouri ballot in November, and deciding the fate of a constitutional amendment.

“If we have this, we could find cures for Parkinson’s and diabetes, and we have a better chance of finding those cures that might emerge in fifteen to twenty years,” Neaves said. “We should declare once and for all that if a field of research is allowed by federal law, it shouldn’t be prevent [sic] by the Missouri legislature.”

A dream long on hype, and short on reality - in other words: false hope. As indicated in this NewsMax article, any ESC-derived human treatment is more than a decade away - and that statement was made at the time when claims to have successfully isolated SCNT-derived human ESC lines had not yet been proven to be fraudulent. (That one step alone - successfully performing SCNT with human cells, harvesting ESCs from the resultant embryo, and isolating the stem cell lines - could add decades to any ESC-derived therapy/treatment timeline.)

And about using stem cells to find curse for Parkinson's and diabetes? Adult stem cells have already been producing therapies for Parkinson's disease. (Note also that this second article - written in 2002, also addresses ASC-derived treatments for MS - the same disability from which the pro-Initiative protagonist in the Missourian article suffers. Oh, and it also mentions advances in ASC-derived diabetes treatments in mice.) Further, this article demonstrates that ASCs have proven superior to ESCs in both Parkinson's and diabetes, and at the same time debunks the hype of the very rat ESC spinal cord experiment referenced earlier.

Moving on to the "Alternatives" section:

Opposition to stem cell research most often has to do with the creation of embryos in order to destroy them.

Embryonic. Opposition to embryonic stem cell research...

Another alternative involves using embryos from fertility clinics. These embryos, which are usually destroyed anyway, could be used for SCNT, thereby averting the need to create new embryos.

Whoops! Looks like that editor needed earlier is needed again. Embryoes are not used for SCNT, embryoes are the result of SCNT.

Since our reporter still seems to be confused about this whole process, let me lay it out one more time. SCNT is the process of removing the nucleus from ("enucleating") an egg, and then implanting the nucleus from a somatic cell. (Cells are either somatic or gametic. Gametes are reproductive cells, and are "haploid" - only having half of genetic material of the cell donor. Somatic cells are non-reproductive cells, and are "diploid" - having the full genetic material of the cell donor.) Next, the joined cells are given an electric impetus, and if all goes well, the joined cells begin mitosis (cell division). At this point, the entity is biologically an embryo. At this point, SCNT has been used to clone the donor of the somatic cell, and the result of the SCNT process is an embryo that is a clone of the somatic cell donor.

Next is the harvesting of ESCs. Regardless of how the embryo came about - whether through sexual reproduction (including IVF) or asexual cloning - the harvesting process is the same. The embryo is allowed to develop to the blastocyst stage, at which point the embryo consists of an outer layer that will later become the placenta, and an inner cell mass. At the blastycyst stage, this inner cell mass consists of undifferentiated stem cells. These stem cells are removed, thereby destroying the developing embryo.

Moving on to "Hope for the Future" - I must point out once more:

For now, Rob and Kara Clardy patiently wait and staunchly defend stem cell research.

Embryonic. Patiently wait and staunchly defend embryonic stem cell research. The omission is especially important here. The Clardys are the article's Initiative supporters. The article's Initiative opponent likewise waits paintently and staunchly defends stem cell research; the critical difference is that the latter has had some the source of his hope yield some results, because he supports adult stem cell research.

I haven't commented on the content of the beginning of the article, and I debated whether or not to do so, because I realize that any criticism of the position of the pro-Initiative protagonist could be perverted into shamefully attacking a disabled person's desire to find a cure for her condition, and that I lack the moral authority to question her position. However, after reading this compelling argument from Mary Meets Dolly that now is the time to stand on principle, I can't help but to challenge such a blatantly wrong position as espoused in this article.

In the "Fighting Back" section:

Kara and Rob Clardy, both self-described conservative Republicans, have weighed the arguments of their religion and their ideological positions, and they are confident that support for the issue is not inconsistent with their beliefs.

I still have yet to see a Biblical defense of ESC research, but let's see what is presented:

“The priest here in town has never said anything about this, but if he did, I’d go up and tell him that if the God I worship and love told me I was going to hell for supporting this, then I guess I’m going to hell,” said Kara Clardy, who was raised Catholic. “If it’s going to cure me, and I’m going to be able to spend time with my kids ... then I’d rather be able to do that, and have my kids have a better memory of life than (of) mom being sick all the time.”

Well, I don't know what Bible she's reading, but my Bible says:

5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. 6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

Genesis 9:5-6 (NIV)

You shall not murder.

Exodus 20:13

It's the same problem I have with Arlen Specter's position: what makes him think that his life is worth more than that of the (several, untold numbers of) embryoes that would be destroyed in the yet-unproven hope of finding a cure or treatment from ESC research? Life is not ours to give and to take away, to choose who will live and who will die in the name of research, the "greater good", or any other morally relativistic reason.

No offense intended, and all due respect, but, it's not all about "me". My Bible also says:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

Romans 12:3 (NIV)

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

Contrast that position with that of the article's other protagonist, who has been wheelchair-bound for 20 years:

“This became a driving force that I would speak about to other people,” he said. “There should be no exception to destroying a life in order to enhance mine or someone else’s.”

McGarry empathizes with those who are suffering, but for him there is no question that the process is unethical and immoral.

“In no way would I let them perform the surgery, even if there was a breakthrough, because of my beliefs,” he said. “It’s been 22 years, and I’d love a cure, but not at the expense of destroying a human being.”

Can't say it better than that.