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The Media's Stem Cell Confusion

The confusion is especially likely for those who get their news from broadcast media, which are always looking for the shortest possible way to identify an issue. In a case like the stem cell research debate, one word is key: embryonic.
by Jay Dunlap | Source:
True or false: The Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research.

True or false: President Bush is opposed to stem cell research.

The answer to both is the same: false. But if you weren't quite sure, or if you thought both statements true, you are likely a victim of the news media's stem cell confusion.

The confusion is especially likely for those who get their news from broadcast media, which are always looking for the shortest possible way to identify an issue. In a case like the stem cell research debate, one word is key: embryonic. And that's the word reporters too often drop.

The only way to do research on embryonic stem cells is to kill the embryo -- to end human life in its earliest stages. That is why the Church, the White House and many others object, and rightfully so. And that is the only kind of stem cell research to which anyone objects, despite the news reports that make it sound as though they oppose any and all stem cell research. In fact, most research is done on "adult" stem cells, and this is the research that is presently bearing fruit.

But you wouldn't know that from the mainstream news media.

Consider two versions of the same Associated Press report on an initiative in Illinois to promote embryonic stem cell research. A story entitled "Ill. Lawmakers Push Stem-Cell Research" begins with the following two paragraphs:

"State lawmakers have enlisted the help of an actor, a Cubs' star and a U.S. senator to revive legislation endorsing stem-cell research, but supporters hope Ronald Reagan's name wins them the support they need. "Supporters have renamed their bill the 'Ronald Reagan Biomedical Research Act.' It's a reminder that research on stem cells obtained from human embryos might create new treatments for the Alzheimer's disease that led to Reagan's death."

Notice that the reference to embryonic stem cells is absent from the headline and the first paragraph. If that's all the casual news consumer would read, he or she would get the impression that opponents of the bill in question oppose any and all stem cell research. That is clarified in the second paragraph and following. But consider how this same story is rendered for WIFR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Rockford, the second largest city in Illinois:

"Illinois lawmakers want to re-name legislation after former President Ronald Reagan. Lawmakers hope that renaming a stem cell research bill will help get the measure passed. The legislation offers a state endorsement of stem-cell research. Those for the change hope Reagan's name on the legislation will bring more researchers to Illinois. "The Illinois House has passed the bill, but it has fallen two votes short of passage in the Senate. Some critics say it is inappropriate to attach
Reagan's name to the bill because it clouds the issue with emotion. "That's the entire text. The references to embryos -- the sole source of controversy -- disappear entirely from this report. The careful viewer or listener will pick up this omission time and again in broadcast reports, even from national news media. To better understand the issue, let's look at the facts.

The vast majority of stem cell research is done with cells taken "from umbilical cords, the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissues and organs such as bone marrow, fat from liposuction, regions of the nose, and even from cadavers up to 20 hours after death," according to bioethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk, who studied at Harvard, Yale and Rome's Gregorian and Lateran Universities.

In a recent interview with veteran Rome correspondent John Allen, Father Pacholczyk dispels a number of misconceptions about stem cell research. Under current U.S. law, it is not illegal for anyone to do research on embryonic stem cells. Any cures that have been developed using stem cells have come from "adult stem cells" -- not a single cure has been derived from embryonic stem cells. Despite claims that "embryonic stem cells hold greater promise," all the evidence points to adult stem cells as the best source for cures.

In fact, in January 2002, Zenit reported findings published in New Scientist that University of Minnesota researchers found an adult stem cell that can be turned into every single tissue in the body. Ihow Lemischka of Princeton University said these so-called "ultimate stem cells" can "differentiate into pretty much everything that an embryonic stem cell can differentiate into."

In other words, embryonic stem cell research isn't even necessary.

Michael Fumento, author of "BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World," wrote recently in Insight magazine that some scientists, hungry for a bonanza of federal research dollars for embryonic stem cell research, are involved in a "stem cell cover-up." Fumento cites "a deliberate effort to downplay the proven value of adult stem cells to attract more attention to the potential of embryonic stem cells."

With more and more writers, editors and politicians jumping on the bandwagon for embryonic stem cells, we all need to pay close attention to the facts. Write your legislators. Confront your local newsrooms when they mischaracterize the stem cell issue. And pray for the conversion of the growing number who seem so ready to throw away nascent human life as they chase after false promises.

Media commentator Jay Dunlap writes from New Haven, Conn. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register, This Rock and other Catholic periodicals.

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