Getting It Right on Stem Cell Legislation

Today the House of Representatives will vote on two bills to increase funding for stem cell research.

Check out just about any news report on the proposed legislation and this is what you’ll learn:

In 2001, President Bush signed into law the first federally mandated stem cell research, but the legislation restricted research to then-current lines of stem cells.

One bill sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Col.) and Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) seeks to lift the restriction allowing federal money to go to research on new embryonic stem cells lines.

A second bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Arthur Davis (D-Ala.) seeks to increase funding for umbilical cord blood cells by establishing a national network of blood banks that would facilitate availability of the cells to patients and research.

Both bills have bi-partisan support and are expected to pass the House and likely the Senate. However, President Bush has threatened to veto the embryonic stem cell legislation, and it’s unlikely the bill has the necessary two-thirds support in Congress to override the veto. Bush’s objection, as a White House fact sheet from today puts it, is that “taxpayer money should not promote research that destroys life,” which, by the president’s definition, includes a frozen embryo.

Given that both two bills have bi-partisan support, reporters haven’t had the chance to fall back on the lame “he-said/she-said” approach that typically fills up most Congressional dispatches. Still, a few of the news reports tread dangerously close to the sin of false equivalence by failing to explain the scientific use and potential of the two different forms of stem cells.

For example, check out coverage by the Chicago Tribune. Here’s how the Tribune explains the science of the embryonic bill:

House passage would be an important advance for the legislative effort to increase the number of stem cell lines that could be used in federally funded research in fighting diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

And for the umbilical cord cells:

Opponents of the bill lined up behind a measure that would allow research on stem cells extracted from umbilical cords. Castle and DeGette said they supported the umbilical cord measure and that it should not draw votes away from their own legislation. The House should pass both measures, they said.

But many conservatives saw the umbilical cord bill, sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Arthur Davis (D-Ala.), as an alternative to the Castle-Degette legislation. The National Right to Life Committee said in a letter to House members that “one ethical source of stem cells is umbilical cord blood” and urged lawmakers to support the alternative bill.

None of that is wrong per se, but neither is it the whole story. As the Washington Post’s Rick Weiss astutely observes, “The pairing of the votes raises a scientific question: Are stem cells from umbilical cords reasonable substitutes for embryonic stem cells, which can give rise to all of the body’s 200 or so cell types, including nerve, liver, skin, bone, heart muscle and the pancreas, the organ that goes awry in diabetes?”

The answer to that question is no. Weiss explains, “Opponents of embryo cell research often correctly note that dozens of diseases have been cured with umbilical cord cells. What is not often emphasized is that all are diseases of the blood.” He adds that “there are some hints that umbilical cord cells may have the potential to do more,” but that the research is not conclusive.

Stem cell research is a complex issue vulnerable to political spin. During the campaign Sen. Kerry and President Bush sparred over the science. Kerry campaigned to lift the funding restrictions. President Bush responded that he was the first president to authorize stem cell funding, and sent his wife onto the campaign trail to say that proponents of embryonic stem cell research give false hope to afflicted families. And a typical exchange of talking points ensued between the two campaigns.

The danger in not making clear the limitations of the umbilical cord cells is that the news consumers, no matter their position on stem cell research, will be unable to determine what exactly their representatives in Washington are voting on.

And it’s more difficult for politicians in Washington -– including the president — to spin a well-informed citizenry than an uninformed one.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.