It was a season of small demagogueries, a time of the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—it was a political moment, in other words, and hardly anyone is naive enough to forget that partisan politics always has partisan purposes.
Hardly anyone, that is, except America’s scientists. For six years, from 2001 through 2007, embryonic stem cells seemed almost the sole topic of popular science. Front-page stories hyped the most minor of breakthroughs, newspaper editorials raged against any luddite who suggested even the slightest moral doubts, and television talk shows made stars of the scientists and biotech spokesmen who promised that embryonic stem cells would deliver extraordinary medical advances.
A good portion of the agitation came, in turn, from the pro-life opposition. Human embryos were human beings at the earliest stage of existence, they argued, and to destroy them to create stem cells is akin to harvesting organs from newborns. There were evangelical and Catholic websites, for instance, that seemed to boom any little tidbit of research that involved adult stem cells derived from umbilical cords or bone marrow—as though, if they could show that cures were coming from adult stem cells, then that would obviate the need for embryonic stem cells.
And yet, the people who rejected embryonic research—the people who didn’t want cloned embryos created and killed for stem cells—were forced into this kind of flailing response. They were desperate for alternatives to which they could point, as the drumbeat grew louder and louder. Undermining Science was the angry title of one political book, The Republican War on Science the title of another—and, always, what John Kerry denounced as a “ban on stem-cell research” was at the center of the attack.
In point of fact, of course, there never was any such ban. In August 2001, when he announced his administration’s new policy, George Bush became the first president to allow the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research. He limited it to previously established stem-cell lines, but even that was a change from what the Clinton administration had done. Meanwhile, private companies could experiment as they wanted, and state governments could fund them if they chose (as California did, authorizing $3 billion worth of bonds specifically for embryonic stem-cell research not funded by the federal government).
President Bush’s mildly complicated policy, however, didn’t fit the narrative that the media wanted to tell. And the question, of course, is why? What was it about stem cells that so agitated the nation for six years?
Perhaps the recipe looks like this: Take the always-present human hunger for magic—for medicine as a kind of witchcraft, delivering thaumaturgical cures. Add the vague sense, shared by most people, that ever since the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 we have been living in something like a golden age of biology. Include the strong sense, among political liberals, that religious believers must be discredited before they undo the abortion license. Now, wrap the whole thing up in money, the competition for trillions of dollars in research grants and the biotech companies’ stock dividends.
And you have, in the end, a story that begs to be told—a dish ready-made for a political meal. As the elections in those years came and went, we were told of miraculous cures, wondrous therapies, and fabulous healings, just waiting to arrive. Research with embryonic stem cells would lead to “the greatest breakthrough in our or any lifetime,” Ronald Reagan’s son announced at the 2004 Democratic convention. “How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.”
On and on, it went: speaker after speaker denouncing the heartless Republicans who were trying to block the path of medical magic, until, at last, the vice-presidential candidate John Edwards stood up in 2004, pointed down at the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, and proclaimed that a vote for the Democrats would mean that people like Reeve “are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”
Surely this isn’t science. It seems more the call-and-response of a revival meeting. It seems more a simulation of science, delivered in a simulation of evangelical Christian preaching, and all of it warped to a partisan purpose.
Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them. In the summer before the 2004 presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells—but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require, he said, “a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”
Little of what we were told about stem cells in those days was wholly true, and much of it was wholly false. But, then, that’s the nature of politics. As late as January 2007, Pennsylvania’s liberal Republican senator Arlen Specter was declaring, “It is scandalous that eight years have passed since we have known about stem-cell research and the potential to conquer all known maladies, and federal funds have not been available for the research.”
Even at the time, however, the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was working with mice to show that fully pluripotent stem cells (cells having the qualities of those produced by destroying embryos) could be created directly from adult cells. Within a year, his study was significantly expanded by research groups. And on November 20, 2007, two independent teams published papers—one in the journal Cell, and the other in the journal Science —about the production of pluripotent human stem cells without using embryos or eggs or cloning. And with a silent thump, the topic suddenly fell off the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.
It’s true that, in February 2008, President Bush did gloat a little at a conservative meeting in Washington: “In 2001, I had a grave decision to make on the question of embryonic stem-cell research. I believed we could empower scientists and researchers to discover cures for terrible diseases—without crossing a moral line. So I authorized research on existing stem-cell lines and stood against any effort to use federal tax dollars to support the destruction of human life. Our critics had a different view. They thought our defense of life was short-sighted and harmful. Then last November, scientists announced a landmark achievement. They found a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells.”
It’s also true that, in September of this year, the Republicans’ presidential nominee John McCain issued a short-lived radio ad supporting funding for stem-cell research, and the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden had a brief flashback to the 2004 campaign when, noting Sarah Palin’s care for her Down syndrome baby, he demanded that Republicans be asked, “If you care about it, why don’t you support stem-cell research?” (He apologized the next day.)
Basically, however, the breakthroughs in the fall of 2007 meant that the issue of stem cells was off the political table: If scientists can make pluripotent stem cells without creating or destroying embryos, then the pro-life community will no longer resist the research; and if the pro-lifers don’t resist it, then their opponents will no longer use the topic to attack them. The news reporting—in the New York Times, particularly—has undergone an astonishing change over the last year: Where once they hyped stem cells as the looming cure for everything from Alzheimer’s to diabetes, they now routinely explain how far scientists are from curing anything with stem cells.
“A decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote,” the famed stem-cell scientist James Thomson said shortly after the new research was announced. He may be right, but he shouldn’t be. We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007, for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.
There are lessons in all this for America’s scientists, beginning with the reminder that politicians are always going to be better at politics than scientists are. The scientific community invested a great deal of its prestige—its standing as an objective, non-partisan reporter—in a public account of stem cells that is now discredited. No explanation of how “people need a fairy tale” will hide the fact that many of the nation’s most prominent stem-cell researchers openly joined one side in a partisan political debate, with all the demagogueries, lies, and exaggerations that partisan politics creates.
There are lessons, as well, for the rest of us, beginning with the reminder that politically useful science is always suspect. “The potential to conquer all known maladies,” proclaimed Sen. Specter. That magical phrase should have made our skin crawl. When science dresses up in political clothes, it’s no longer science. It’s only politics.
The modern history of stem cells—our case study of the intersection of politics and science—begins with the first successful bone-marrow transplant in 1968. Although the medical community would not realize it until 1988 (when Irving Weissman identified the hematopoietic stem cell), the reason the transplants were successful was that bone marrow contains the adult stem cells that help reconstruct the blood-forming system in a patient.
Perhaps the best way to understand stem cells is as “precursor cells”: cells that have the ability to develop—differentiate into—more specific body cells. Both the words adult and embryonic are misleading in this context. Adult stem cells can be found in fetuses, umbilical cords, and placentas, and scientists have made discoveries that show these adult stem cells are more flexible than the proponents of destructive embryonic research had imagined. Meanwhile, the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, as last November revealed, can be derived from sources other than embryos: from mature skin cells, for instance.
The terms multipotent and pluripotent—which define capability rather than origin—may be more revealing. Adult stem cells, the multipotent cells, are found primarily in the body—blood, heart, neural, and so on. Embryonic stem cells, the pluripotent cells, do not exist as such in nature. They were first suggested in 1970, when cancer-like growths called teratomas were analyzed. Then, in 1981, these pluripotent stem cells were derived from mice, and, in 1998, James Thomson isolated their human form. Scientists coax these cells into existence by isolating the inner cell mass of a five- or six-day-old embryo.
What made Thomson’s discovery possible was the first successful in-vitro procedure, the laboratory uniting of an egg with human sperm in 1969. Though it would be nine years before in-vitro fertilization produced the first live-born child—Joy Louise Brown, in 1978—the procedure allowed, for the first time, access to human embryos for research purposes.
Nevertheless, through the 1970s and 1980s, federal funds were unavailable for research on human embryos. While the national Ethics Advisory Board concluded that such research was “acceptable from an ethical standpoint,” it did not advise federally funded support. In 1980 the Ethics Advisory Board’s charter expired, which had the effect of retaining a moratorium on federally funded embryo experimentation through the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
Only in 1993 did Congress pass the NIH Revitalization Act, eliminating the requirement for research to be approved by the defunct Ethics Advisory Board. This left the National Institutes of Health free to fund work using human embryos, if they chose. And so the NIH established its own ethics commission—the Human Embryo Research Panel—to review the question and create guidelines for potential funding. Ronald Green of Dartmouth College was selected to head the panel, which unsurprisingly declared embryonic research to be ethical. Unsurprisingly, that is, given the fact that the commission was seen by many as a group hand-picked to allow the experiments that scientists wanted. (It is worth noting that even as late as 1994 embryo destruction for embryonic stem cells wasn’t a prime-time debate. The research of which they spoke was mainly for fertility treatments. The panel, in fact, placed cloning and embryonic stem-cell research in the category of “warrants additional review.”)
The objections to this result were not limited to the pro-lifers. Arthur Caplan, a liberal and perhaps the nation’s best-known bioethicist, opposed the recommendations, saying they opened the door to “designer embryos” (which he now supports). The Washington Post—later a strong supporter of stem-cell research—ran an editorial at the time titled “Drawing the Line,” arguing that, “in approving the funding of the purposeful creation of human embryos for any experiments, the panel took a step too far.” The creation of embryos specifically for research that will destroy them “is unconscionable,” the editorial insisted. “The government has no business funding it. . . . It is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists’ purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction.”
President Clinton, responding to these reactions, wouldn’t cross that line. After praising the panel, Clinton added, “I do not believe that federal funds should be used to support the creation of human embryos for research purposes, and I have directed that NIH not allocate any resources for such research.” During the same address, Clinton announced his intention to establish the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to advise him on pending bioethical questions—including cloning and stem-cell research.
Green was, by all reports, furious at what he saw as Clinton’s betrayal of his commission. Appearing on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, he repeatedly insisted on the importance of embryonic research for improving knowledge of reproduction. And, as he describes it, he left the studio to be greeted by “a crowd of PBS staff, mostly women,” who “broke into applause.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “female voters living and working on the Upper West Side of Manhattan do not determine U.S. reproductive policy.” Green’s comments back in 1994 were one of the first clear clues of a key political alignment that would soon emerge: embryonic research linked to legalized abortion. If embryos are human beings whom we can’t destroy for biomedical research, then how can we destroy fetuses for elective reasons?
Clinton did accept experimentation on “spares,” the embryos left over from in-vitro procedures, but before the NIH could act on that concession, Congress eliminated the funding. First passed in 1996, the Dickey-Wicker amendment has been revived every year since, preventing federal funds from being used for the creation of embryos for research or the destruction of embryos in research.
But then, in 1997, came the news that Ian Wilmut had successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly in Scotland. Everyone was caught off guard, biotech activists and pro-lifers alike. President Clinton asked his newly formed National Bioethics Advisory Commission to turn its attention to the topic of human cloning, and in June 1997, the commission reported that reproductive cloning “would be a premature experiment that would expose the fetus and the developing child to unacceptable risks.”
About these recommendations, Ronald Green was again furious, claiming that Clinton’s commission “set an unfortunate precedent for the public policy debate by giving ethicists representing varying religious traditions a privileged role in the commission’s deliberations.” In point of fact, the commission stayed far away from giving religion a “privileged role,” but here, too, Green saw the emergence of a key political alignment: embryonic research linked to debates about religion in public life. “In the fields of physics and astronomy, for example, most religious communities have abandoned their efforts to defend every feature of an outmoded biblical cosmology,” he declared. “But human sexuality and reproduction remain vulnerable to religious efforts to exert control.”
The 1998 research in which James Thomson iso-lated embryonic stem cells was funded by private money through the Geron Institute and the University of Madison Alumni Research Foundation. Indeed, to ensure he didn’t violate the Dickey-Wicker provisions, Thomson did all his embryonic research in special labs across the street from his regular workplace. But this left the scientific community in a bind: How could they replicate or extend his experiments when they didn’t have private funders? Who would further the research that the journal Science deemed the scientific breakthrough of the year?
In 1999, Thomson’s funder, the Geron Institute, acquired the cloning patents of the Roslin labs at which Dolly the sheep had been created. It was a sign, for anyone with eyes to see, of the third key political alignment that was emerging: embryonic research linked to high finance, for both the immediate research funding from the U.S. government and the potential future rewards in patented therapies.
Under some pressure from its political allies, the Clinton administration began seeking ways around the Dickey-Wicker provisions. And in January 1999, the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that human embryonic stem cells are not human embryos—which means that Dickey-Wicker is silent on what could be done with them. If a private company paid for the procedures that produced the stem cells (which required work with embryos), then scientists could receive federal funds to do subsequent work with those cells.
Clinton’s own bioethics commission rejected this “use-derivation” distinction as ethically unhelpful. Instead, in September 1999, the commission argued that the Dickey-Wicker amendment must be overturned: The derivation of embryonic stem cells from human embryos should not be considered unethical, provided that IVF spares are used and no embryos are created specifically for the research. But even this, the commission admitted, was only acceptable if there were no other ways to obtain stem cells: “In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, accepting the legal advice of its general counsel, embraced the use-derivation distinction. Recognizing the emerging political alliances, the Washington Post , too, came around, editorializing in October 1999—under the headline of “Miracle Cells”—that while it “was reasonable for Congress not to let public funds go directly to the destruction of human embryos, . . . where the embryos used were being destroyed anyway . . . the rationale for blocking an explosively promising field falls apart.”
In August 2000, Clinton accepted the NIH proposal (rejecting his commission’s advice). That same month marked a high point in the presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush—which marks a curious moment, perhaps the last political exchange before the new alignments forced stem cells into the center of American politics. Gore hardly mentioned stem cells. Bush did promise the Catholic bishops that he wouldn’t fund embryo-destructive research, but it seemed more of a special-interest-group promise and not a central campaign topic. Abortion was a major issue in the 2000 election; stem cells were not.
The Clinton administration never actually funded any embryonic stem-cell projects before leaving office, and the whole mess was left waiting for George W. Bush when he assumed office in January 2001. Precisely because stem cells had not yet fully entered public consciousness, there was a moment, early in his administration, when Bush might have pushed the problem aside for a while—his ban lost in the flurry of executive orders that come in the first days of a new administration. Unfortunately, the voting controversy in Florida, the Supreme Court’s review of Bush v. Gore—all the dragging on of the election past November’s vote—put the Bush administration behind schedule, and the moment slipped away.
Once in office, Bush decided to undertake a review of stem-cell policy and to halt NIH review of applications (only two had come in, one of which was subsequently withdrawn). That wasn’t necessarily a bad decision, but it made what could have been a one-day story a months-long saga. Indeed, it was during this period that the political alliances firmed up on both sides, embryonic research inextricably linked to abortion, religion, and big money.
We may forget the extent to which stem cells dominated political news before the attacks of September 11. In February 2001, eighty Nobel laureates—an extraordinary number—signed an open letter asking the president to fund the research. On March 6, Tommy Thompson, Bush’s new secretary of HHS, told a Senate panel that he did not support a law restricting embryonic stem-cell research. Connie Mack, Gordon Smith, Orrin Hatch, and other pro-life politicians began finding odd loopholes in their pro-life positions, and they pushed the president to allow federal funding.
“A frozen embryo is more akin to a frozen unfertilized egg or frozen sperm than to a fetus naturally developing in the body of a mother,” Hatch wrote to Bush—and he explained to the Washington Post that “the most pro-life position would be to help people who suffer from these maladies” that stem-cell research could cure. All through that season, miracle cures seemed to be in the air. Newsweek ran its cover story under the headline: “There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?”
On July 23, 2001, President Bush met with Pope John Paul II in Washington—an occasion for innumerable stories about how religion was influencing the decision. And then, at the end of July, the House of Representatives voted on two biotechnology bills: the successful Weldon bill, which banned all cloning, and the defeated Greenwood bill, which would have banned cloning for reproduction while allowing cloning for research.
The ethics of all this was peculiar—the cloning procedure is the same in both reproductive and research cloning, for instance, and the Greenwood bill would have made it illegal to do anything except kill the clone—but the politics were clear enough. The columnist Charles Krauthammer collected at the time some of the most egregious comments on the votes:
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), with characteristic subtlety: “Mr. Speaker, the National Institutes of Health and Science hold the biblical power of a cure for us.”
Zoe Lofgren (D-CA): “If your religious beliefs will not let you accept a cure for your child’s cancer, so be it. But do not expect the rest of America to let their loved ones suffer without cure.”
Jerrold Nadler (D-NY): “We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings, ‘go ahead and die, stay paralyzed, because we believe the blastocyst, the clump of cells, is more important than you are.’ . . . It is a sentence of death to millions of Americans.”
Anna Eshoo (D-CA): “As we stand on the brink of finding the cures to diseases that have plagued so many millions of Americans, unfortunately, the Congress today in my view is on the brink of prohibiting this critical research.”
“The claim that cloning, and the stem cells it might produce, is on the verge of bringing a cure to your sick father with Alzheimer’s or your debilitated mother with Parkinson’s is a scandal,” Krauthammer concluded. “It is a cruel deception perpetrated by cynical scientists and ignorant politicians. Its purpose is clear: to exploit the desperation of the sick to garner political support for ethically problematic biotechnology.” No cures would be coming anytime soon, and, as all the scientists knew, Alzheimer’s would never see a stem-cell cure.
Nonetheless, newspaper editorials across the nation denounced the congressional defeat of research cloning. The Washington Post—which had rejected creating embryos for research in 1994—published an editorial titled “Cloning Overkill,” which announced that “society’s ability to make distinctions” had been lost in the defeat of Greenwood’s bill.
While all this was going on, George Bush was weighing his decision. In a fascinating essay in the January 2008 issue of Commentary, Jay Lefkowitz (who had been a lawyer in the White House in 2001) reports the extent to which the president was carefully hearing from all sides. “This is too important an issue to take polls about,” Bush declared. “I am going to decide this based on what I believe is right.”
And on August 9, 2001, he went on national television to announce his decision. It was the first televised special address of his presidency—and who could have guessed, a year before, that it would have been on stem cells? “I must confess I am wrestling with a difficult decision,” he explained. “On one hand, it offers so much hope; on the other, so much despair. I worry about a culture that devalues life. I think my job is to encourage respect for life. On the other hand, I believe technologies and science will help solve many medical problems.” The result was a ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell lines, an agreement to fund (for the first time) research with the already existing embryonic stem-cell lines, a proposal for Congress to increase funds for research into stem cells obtained from nonembryonic sources, and the creation of a new bioethics commission.
There was some squabbling from conservatives and the pro-life community, a claim that Bush’s stand was either a stroke of genius or wasn’t principled enough: the science essayist Eric Cohen called it a “Missouri Compromise,” while the head of the Family Research Council declared it a “blot” on the president’s pro-life record. In essence, though, President Bush was making a bet that scientists would find a way to get the stem cells they wanted without creating cloned embryos and destroying them, and the initial public reaction was fairly positive.
His opponents, however, quickly used the issue as a wedge to divide Bush from the popular opinion. A New York Times op-ed the next morning announced that the plan would severely “hamper the government’s ability to spur this important new area of medical research.” The September 10 editorial in Business Week declared that “Stem Cell Science Needs More from Uncle Sam.” One day later, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, and for a while, at least, stem cells faded into the background.
Part of President Bush’s August 9 plan was the formation of the President’s Council on Bioethics, with Leon Kass as the chair. Kass’ decision to include no professional bioethicists on the council outraged the scientists who had hoped to use bioethics as a lever against Bush’s decision, but Kass went ahead and assembled a cast of law professors, political theorists, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, psychiatrists, scientists, and journalists. The members were required to examine literature—touching on the deepest questions of humanity—and not just the technical stuff of professional bioethics.
Along the way, the proponents of research cloning denounced the President’s Council on Bioethics as nothing but a gang of conservatives, and a good number of conservatives whispered that, since he was going to be accused of stacking the council with Christian conservatives no matter what he did, Kass should have gone ahead and actually stacked the council with Christian conservatives. The first report from the council showed how balanced it was: All agreed on banning reproductive cloning, but only ten of the seventeen members agreed to even a four-year moratorium on research cloning—and even those ten were divided into contradictory groups. They didn’t heed Kass’ warning that, as he would later phrase it, “Killing creatures in God’s image isn’t as bad as creating creatures in our image.”
Meanwhile, the Senate bill to match the House’s Weldon bill remained stalled from 2001 on. Indeed, as late as the winter of 2004, the House had twice passed a cloning-ban bill, and the Senate had not voted. In part, that was because the pressure was off the politicians in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. But then, in February 2004, the South Korean experimenter Hwang Woo Suk announced that he had achieved what other scientists had been unable to do: creating embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. And that same winter, the new presidential election began heating up. Stem cells came roaring back into the news.
Along the way—particularly in the trough between the terrorist attacks in September 2001 and the presidential election of 2004—there were some scientists who tried to pull back from the hype generated by the alignment of stem-cell research with the politics of abortion, religion, and money.
In a 2002 article in Nature, for example, Roger Pielke Jr. pointed to false stories—like one about the disabled rat in Australia that regained the ability to walk via tissues from aborted human fetuses—and declared that scientists’ ventures into the stem-cell debates “have given a black eye to the broader scientific enterprise.” That same year, the researcher Alan Trounson added, “There are at least three or four other alternatives [to cloning and destroying embryos for pluripotent stem cells] that are more attractive already. . . . I can’t see why, then, you would argue for therapeutic cloning in the long term because it is so difficult to get eggs and you’ve got this issue of embryos as well.”
In January 2003, a science writer for the New York Times admitted: “For all the handwringing by scientists, you might think that therapeutic cloning is on the verge of curing a disease or two. . . . Almost all researchers, when questioned, confess that such accomplishments are more dream than reality.” Even Thomas Okarma, president of the Geron Institute, expressed some doubts: “The efficiency of making a stem-cell line from an embryo made by nuclear transfer [the technical name for cloning] is vanishingly small, and you’re going back to the case-by-case, individualized-therapy story again, with enormous costs. The whole idea is to make this therapy internationally available, broadly. Nuclear-transfer procedures just are never going to get us there.”
In the campaign season of 2004, many fewer of these hesitations would be publicly mentioned. Perhaps scientists came to the defense of the Democrats because they wanted funding, or because they truly wanted to protect the abortion license, or because they are genuinely opposed to religious influence on public life. But, one way or another, hardly any scientists in the election season resisted the tidal wave of editorials and news stories booming the cures that would come from stem cells if the Bush administration were defeated. Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Brad Pitt—the celebrities were out in force, adding a touch of glamour to the movement.
“For years, stem-cell researchers were indeed scientific, apolitical, and irreligious. That’s why they had no juice,” wrote William Saletan in Slate. But then “the stem-cell lobby went to work. Patients whose diseases might be cured got organized. Biotech companies geared up. Hollywood big-shots lobbied Congress. Strategists boiled the issue down to handy slogans. The stem-cell movement has become political.” Indeed, as Saletan saw, the politics of it were overwhelming:
On the eve of her convention, Pelosi called stem-cell therapy “the biblical power to cure.” At the convention, Ron Reagan likened it to “magic.” Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin trumpeted its “medical miracles.” Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, a paraplegic, proclaimed his “strong faith that we will find a cure.” “I believe one day I will walk again,” said Langevin. . . .
“At this very moment, some of the most pioneering cures and treatments are right at our fingertips, but because of the stem-cell ban, they remain beyond our reach,” said Kerry. “To those who pray each day for cures that are now beyond our reach—I want you to know that help is on the way. I want you to hold on, and keep faith, because come next January, when John Edwards and I are sworn into office . . . we’re going to lift the ban on stem-cell research.”
Abortion was hardly mentioned at the 2004 Democratic convention, while stem cells made at least twenty appearances. “The tide of history is with us,” Ron Reagan Jr. told the convention. “We have a chance to take a giant stride forward for the good of all humanity. We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.”
The party’s platform made it all explicitly political: “President Bush has rejected the calls from Nancy Reagan, Christopher Reeve, and Americans across the land for assistance with embryonic stem-cell research. We will reverse his wrong-headed policy. Stem-cell therapy offers hope to more than 100 million Americans who have serious illnesses—from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to juvenile diabetes to Parkinson’s. We will pursue this research under the strictest ethical guidelines, but we will not walk away from the chance to save lives and reduce human suffering.” And the scientists went along.
Curiously, the Republicans started to retreat from their opposition to embryonic research and cloning after November 2004. It was almost as though they felt they had won the election but lost the culture along the way.
In March 2005, the House passed the Castle-DeGette bill, which funded research on spare IVF embryos. It was all a sideshow, for by that point the scientists and researchers were all on record saying they needed vast quantities of healthy embryos and the patient-specific matches only cloned embryos could provide. And, of course, the loudest voices for funding the spares were also in support of funding cloning. In July 2005, the Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist capitulated and endorsed the Senate version of Castle-DeGette. The “spare embryo” bill passed the Senate in July 2006, forcing Bush to use a veto against a Congress held by his own party.
And yet, even while the Republicans were looking for somewhere to abandon their party’s policy on stem cells, the cracks in the scientific facade were starting to show through. In November 2005, the work of the Korean superstar Hwang Woo Suk was revealed as a fraud. For all the major scientific journals, embryonic research had become what Robert P. George and Eric Cohen would call “a litmus test for being pro-science and the central front in the alleged war of scientific reason against religious barbarians.” Science magazine had fast-tracked Hwang’s work to let America know the cost of President Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Scientific American published a mea culpa for all scientific journals, and it is, George and Cohen pointed out, “remarkable for both its honesty and remorse: ‘Hwang is guilty of raising false expectations, but too many of us held the ladder for him.’”
Not that the revelations of the Korean fraud changed much. Nature Biotechnology carried a report in April 2006 which declared that “the fear that United States researchers might lose ground to their international counterparts in human embryonic stem-cell research now appears to have become a fact.” The Washington Post began its news report on the study by telling its readers that “American scientists are falling behind researchers elsewhere in stem-cell discoveries because of U.S. limits on the use of federal funding.”
In fact, according to one survey, 46 percent of the scientific papers on stem cells were published in the United States. As Eric Cohen noted, the report in Nature Biotechnology actually demonstrates that “more than 85 percent of all the published embryonic stem-cell research in the world has used the lines approved for funding under the Bush policy. . . . It is clear that a great deal of the work done abroad has also involved these lines, even though most of it could not have been funded by the NIH. The lines are used, in other words, because they are useful, not only because they are eligible for federal support.”
In the spring of 2005, the President’s Council on Bioethics published a report called Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells, laying out four possibilities for generating pluripotent stem cells without creating or killing embryos. All were speculative at the time, but since then all four (and others) have progressed, with results published in serious scientific journals. One of the central figures here is Stanford’s William Hurlbut, who insisted that science could find a way to bypass the political debate. Hurlbut’s proposal of Altered Nuclear Transfer—a method to produce an embryo-like entity and then derive stem cells from it—seems to have sparked the imagination of the researchers and led to the technique that eventually won out: producing the stem cells by reprogramming skin cells.
In the mainstream media, however, the signs of breakdowns in embryonic research and breakthroughs in alternatives were hardly visible—for, in the spring of 2006, the candidates for the midterm elections began their political maneuvering. With a conviction that they had a chance to seize Congress from the Republicans, and an equal conviction that embryonic stem cells were a winning issue, the Democrats ginned up the same political machine that had hyped the bad science during the 2004 election.
Some have argued that stem cells were relatively unimportant in the election. Everyone admits, however, that they played a role in Missouri, where a hotly contested Senate election was matched with a referendum on stem-cell research, bankrolled, to the tune of $30 million, by the founders of a biomedical research institute. As Yuval Levin noted, most of the campaign’s ads focused on cures:
One shows a doctor saying that, far from endangering women, stem-cell research “could lead to cures for diseases that concern women like ovarian cancer.” . . .
Another ad shows a pediatrician saying stem cells could help his patients, but offering no details. Another shows an Alzheimer’s researcher saying “stem-cell research offers the promise of cures” for “so many devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.” . . .
“As you might know, I care deeply about stem-cell research,” said [Michael J.] Fox, a longtime and visibly suffering Parkinson’s patient, in a spot that first aired during the World Series. “In Missouri you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem-cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope.”
In the end, the 2006 election produced victory for the Democrats, and the new congressional leaders, Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate, almost immediately began to court stem-cell vetoes from President Bush. A House bill passed in January 2007, and the Senate took up the issue.
By that point, however, Bush’s bet on alternative sources started to look better. New discoveries of stem-cell resources in amniotic fluids were beginning to change the picture, and, with advance notice of the work being done in labs around the world, the cloner Ian Wilmut said in March 2007 that he saw reprogramming as the best source for stem cells. Nonetheless, the bill passed the Senate, and the president vetoed it on June 20, 2007.
And there we stood, stem cells apparently locked in as a central political symbol in American public life. Abortion politics had helped create the situation. A related hostility to the role of religion had added its share. And the big money of modern science had encouraged the alignments that made stem cells seem central to our political debates. Outside the scientific community, conventional wisdom had long held that investigation into alternative sources for stem cells was merely political cover for President Bush’s foolish bet against what scientists wanted to do—and as soon as the Democrats achieved control of the government, federal funds would flow into human cloning and embryo-destructive research.
All of which made it more peculiar when, in November 2007, the stem-cell wars came to a sharp and sudden end when leading scientists announced that they had discovered ways to create pluripotent stem cells without using—much less killing—human embryos. Embryo destruction became not only unnecessary but also less efficient than alternative methods.
The new production technique is possible because the difference between a stem cell and an adult cell is not a matter of genetics but of epigenetics: which genes are expressed, how, and to what degree. Scientists had been searching for a way to remodel the gene expression of adult cells to transform them into stem cells. And the Japanese research team led by Shinya Yamanaka found a group of four genes that does precisely this. As confirmed by American researchers, these genes directly reprogram adult cells to a pluripotent state.
James Thomson explained the result in his Science paper about “induced Pluripotent Stem cells”: “The human iPS cells described here meet the defining criteria we originally proposed for human embryonic stem cells, with the significant exception that the iPS cells are not derived from embryos.” In other words, the new technique produces stem cells with all the benefits of stem cells from embryos produced by cloning—particularly the patient-specific character—but without the production and destruction of human embryos or the use of human eggs.
Since that breakthrough, stem cells have barely made the news. Interesting and exciting work is still going on, but what’s changed is the immediate impact of stem cells—the political salience, in other words. For six years, from 2001 through 2007, embryonic stem cells were a weapon in a political battle. And, as in all political battles, usefulness trumps truth, even for the scientists who willingly made themselves into partisans during the debate.
The history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other. The politicians were guilty, but the scientists were more guilty, for they allowed—no, they encouraged—politicians to make stem-cell research a tool in the public fights over abortion, public religion, and high finance.
In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things. A former assistant editor at First Things, Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, a new publication from the Witherspoon Institute.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?