June 04, 2004,
The issue of federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research is back. We can expect a heated debate and, to judge by Michael Crowley's article for The New Republic, a frequently misinformed one.
"George W. Bush cut off federal funding for [embryonic stem-cell research] in the U.S nearly three years ago." Actually, Bush provided funding for the first time. Congress had essentially banned funding, the Clinton administration issued preliminary regulations getting around the ban, and then Bush imposed a policy of funding with restrictions.
On foreign stem-cell lines: "All of those lines are off-limits to federally funded U.S. scientists, who are now restricted to an estimated 19 usable lines here in America (and that number may be optimistic, as we'll see)." None of those lines are, in truth, off-limits to federally funded scientists. They just have to use private funds for research on those lines. No restriction blocks a scientist from using private funds on those lines in the same lab in which he uses American taxpayer funds on other lines. Also, the "estimated" 19 "usable lines" is not an estimate: It is the actual number of currently available lines that are eligible for funding. As more lines become available, the number will increase. It has been increasing all year. The final number will be higher, not lower, than 19. Crowley mentions none of this.
"[T]hese embryos, usually left over from in vitro fertilization efforts, would be destroyed anyway." Really? All of them? None of them are frozen?
"[Bush's] so-called compromise was built on a phony foundation. Bush claimed researchers had already created 60 stem cell lines to experiment with, a seemingly ample number. But that came as news to most scientists in the field, and, like so many White House 'facts,' this one was a fraud. Within weeks, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson admitted to Congress that only about two dozen lines were suitable for research. The number has since dwindled." People who throw around charges of "fraud" ought to be careful that they're right on the facts themselves. On these points, Crowley isn't.
Like many of Bush's critics, Crowley seems innocent of the distinction between stem-cell lines that are available and those that are eligible for funding. When Bush made his announcement, the NIH thought about 60 lines that met his criteria existed in the world. That estimate has since gone up, not down. But to actually be available to researchers, the lines must be developed, tested, characterized, and reproduced, and this process takes time. That's why more and more lines have become available with time. The number of lines will eventually be between about 23 (the likely minimum) and about 55. And the number is not dwindling but growing as more lines are developed.
"A recent unpublished analysis by the National Institutes of Health found that at most, 23 usable lines were grandfathered out of Bush's ban and even several of those lines have shown signs of contamination." That's not what the NIH found. What it did find is that there were 23 lines that were either already available or that had won grant money from the NIH. Another 31 lines, mostly overseas, had not applied for such awards. But they may become available in the future. The NIH analysis says nothing about "signs of contamination."
"An April poll in battleground states by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that voters in those states support funding for new cell lines by a 65-17 margin. Among independents the spread was 70-11, and among Catholics it was 70-15. Even evangelicals said they supported research on new lines by a 46-30 margin. (The polling also showed, depressingly, that this is yet another issue on which the least-informed voters support Bush the most.)"
Most of Crowley's readers are probably aware that Peter Hart is a Democratic pollster. They may not know that the poll was done for a pro-funding organization, the Civil Society Institute. Not surprisingly, the poll is skewed.
The poll, for example, treated voters as "more informed" after they were exposed to such statements as the following: "Scientists believe that there is a good chance that stem cells can be developed into cures or treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes, and spinal cord injuries." And: "Stem cell research offers the best hope we have today for curing such diseases as Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which today cause pain and suffering to more than 100 million Americans." These assertions are too strong, outrageously so in the cases of cancer and heart disease (which is how the pollster got to "100 million Americans.") Voters who hear these claims aren't better informed; they are just more exposed to dubious assertions.
The poll presented a misleading picture of Bush's stem-cell policy, too, because of the same mistakes about the number of stem-cell lines that Crowley makes. Other questions ignore the distinction between allowing the research and funding it. The pollsters can't even resist the temptation to pad their numbers even when an unbiased question would probably favor them. For example, I do not doubt that most voters are more likely to trust pro-funding groups such as the American Medical Association than anti-funding groups such as the National Right to Life Committee. But the pollsters rig the results by describing the pro-funding groups as "highly respected" in the course of asking the question. Among the "highly respected" pro-funding groups, according to the pollsters, is the National Institutes of Health. Here our well-informed voters have been exposed to erroneous information. The NIH, as part of the Bush administration, is not taking positions at odds with it.
These numbers are worthless.
"Most significant, perhaps, is the role of Nancy Reagan." Most conservatives are well aware that Nancy Reagan has never been a great ally of theirs, especially on social issues. (To her credit, she has never said that Ronald Reagan himself would support embryo-destructive research.) In my own discussions with the offices of congressmen who have recently come out in support of federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, I have not found that Mrs. Reagan's advocacy has been a major factor. What has mattered more is visits from constituents who are under the impression that the research, if funded more heavily, would cure their children's diabetes.
Crowley is a good reporter, and he is by no means alone in making these mistakes. Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss gave that poll more credence than it deserved, too. Nor do I think that he has deliberately muddied the issues. But we're all going to be reading a lot of pro-research reporting over the next few months, and his article is an illustration of the need to read it with skepticism.