Progress of Stem Cell Bill, and Its Media Coverage, Still Plagued by Problems

On the 29th of June, the Senate finally announced an upcoming vote on HR 810, a bill which would overturn President Bush's current prohibitions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. As I reported before, the announcement has been anticipated for some time, and many were disappointed when the one year anniversary of the passage of HR 810 in the House of Representatives (on May 24th) came and went without any progress in the Senate.

The media coverage of this event has mostly been unexceptional, not particularly good or bad, although probably overly optimistic considering the hurdles still to come. The most disappointing coverage of the issue has come, surprisingly, from Science magazine, as this week's issue features a news article (subscription required) that is uninformed, misleading, and does little to advance the cause of science. I'll break it down point by point after some additional background on the issue.

The good news is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had successfully delayed voting on this measure for over a year, has stayed true to his word and placed the bill on the Senate's legislative calendar. This action doesn't signal the end of embryonic stem cell research's troubles in the US, though. HR 810 will be voted on as part of package of three bills, and all must pass for the measure to advance. The other two bills can best be described as... well... slightly bizarre. Michael Stebbins of Sex Drugs & DNA explains:

2) A bill introduced by Senators Spector and Santorum that would force the National Institutes of Health to fund research into "alternative sources" of embryonic stem cells. In other words, fund research that would never stand up to the rigor of peer review under normal circumstances.

3) This one is my favorite. Senator Brownback has a bill called the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act, which would make it a crime to trade in tissues from fetuses that were conceived and aborted expressly for research purposes. A practice that even Senator Brownback admits is NOT happening anywhere in the world and has not even been proposed by scientists....

It's not all bad, though!

There is a silver lining though. We will still be able to trade in Alien robot space monkeys and none of the chimera bills or cloning bills will be considered.

The real nail in the coffin comes from the fact that President Bush continues his stubborn opposition to the measure, promising a veto of HR 810 if it reaches his desk. This means that we're likely to end up worse off than before, still without funding for embryonic stem cell research but now burdened by the irrelevant mandates of these two new bills.

Surely, then, we should expect Science--a publication that generally serves as a voice for scientific progress with in depth reporting and on point commentary on current issues in science and science policy--to really take this issue on.

Unfortunately that hasn't been the case at all. The only coverage so far comes from a news article (subscription required) in this week's edition, and for a publication that has pretty high expectations to live up to, the article was a major letdown. The following are some my main points of contention with it.

In the first paragraph:

Senate leaders have formally agreed to allow a vote-possibly this month-on a bill that would allow federally funded researchers to work on newly derived lines of human embryonic stem (ES) cells. The bipartisan deal announced last week was painstakingly cobbled together over the past few months to placate opponents by including one bill that would promote "alternatives" to embryo destruction for obtaining stem cells and another that would outlaw "embryo farms."

Calling this a painstaking bipartisan deal really misses the point. Since the beginning, Democrats have been for the passage of HR 810, but the Republicans against. For example, when the bill was passed in the House, 93% of Democrats voted for it, but 79% of Republicans voted against it. When one considers the fact that polls show 70% of Americans supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the only thing that made this deal "painstaking" was the Republican Party standing in the way of scientific progress.

In the fourth paragraph:

Under the agreement, H.R. 810 will be buffered by two bills designed to appeal to opponents of embryo destruction. One (S. 2754), co-sponsored by Specter and Rick Santorum (R-PA), calls on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote research on finding ways to derive pluripotent cells other than from embryos. The bill would only reinforce current NIH policies, NIH stem cell czar James Battey told senators last week at a hearing on the legislation. The other measure (S.3504), co-sponsored by Santorum and Sam Brownback (R-KS), prohibits trading in tissues from human fetuses "gestated [in humans or animals] for research purposes." This is already prohibited under federal funding rulesnd wo auld in any case be ethically taboo for legitimate researchers. Because the bills are not mutually exclusive, the Senate could easily pass all three.

First of all, referring to the opposition of the measure as "opponents of embryo destruction" unfairly lets these opponents have this debate on their terms, using their misleading language.

This one's hard to miss: "rulesnd wo auld". WTF? Can we get some copyediting, please?

Anyways, getting back on topic... the final sentence of that paragraph, though, displays a surprising lack of knowledge about the issue. Of course the bills are "not mutually exclusive", and not only could the Senate "easily pass all three", it will have to pass all three for any to advance. That was the whole point of this deal.

In the fifth paragraph:

The agreement has successfully divorced the matter of generating new cell lines (from excess embryos in fertility clinics) from an issue with which it has often been conflated: generation of cell lines through research cloning (otherwise known as somatic cell nuclear transfer). Earlier scenarios of how H.R. 810 might be brought before the Senate included a Brownback-sponsored bill that would outlaw all forms of cloning. Research supporters feared that President George W. Bush would veto H.R. 810 and sign the anticloning bill into law, leaving them worse off than under present circumstances.

While that last sentence is true, it ignores the fact that this is exactly the same situation that supporters of the bill now find themselves in. Under the current agreement, HR 810 is bundled to two superfluous bills, and if they reach President Bush, he is likely to veto HR 810 but not the others.

In the sixth paragraph:

There are now 21 human ES cell lines available to federally funded researchers. But scientists want more: Cell lines get corrupted over time by genetic mutations; the available ones were all cultivated using animal feeder cells, which limits potential use for humans; and researchers want to be able to work with lines containing genes for specific diseases.

Yes, there's just no satisfying those damn greedy embryo-destroying scientists. All they want is more, more, more!

Come on! When Bush announced his ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research, the NIH reported the existence of 64 distinct lines of embryonic stem cells. Since then, though, many have been found to be nonexistent or unusable. The ones that are still reported as "available" are inappropriate for clinical applications. On top of that, it's completely nonsensical to limit scientists to stem cell lines that were isolated when the field was still in its infancy, not allowing them to take advantage of new advances in the field. In fact, it runs contrary to the fundamental principles that modern science operates on.

In the final paragraph:

The Senate's willingness to take up H.R. 810, he and others note, also may reflect polls showing that the vast majority of the public supports it. Still, that may not be enough. White House spokesperson Blair Jones says Bush won't budge on the issue. "He does not believe we are forced to choose between science and ethics," says Jones. "This crosses an important moral line."

Although at first I thought the statement on choosing between science and ethics was completely wrong, because that's exactly what's going on here, right? No, Jones might actually be right here, sort of, because this has nothing to do with ethics. What's going on here is that we are forced to choose between science and a political agenda. Period. Regardless, this statement appears unquestioned in the article.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the organization that publishes Science, bills itself as an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In general, I'd argue that the AAAS does a pretty good job of this. In this case, though, the AAAS performed none of these roles in publishing an article that was at points inaccurate and as a whole unquestioning of the anti-science forces at play.

Since the current ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is one of the most significant barriers to scientific progress in the US right now, this was not a good issue to drop the ball on.

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