“Rush” to Judgment

How Radical Conservatives Distort the Facts about Stem Cell Research

Limbaugh’s outburst was the symptom of a larger disease of attacking advocates and scientists rather than debating the issues.

Rush Limbaugh’s appalling statement that actor Michael J. Fox faked the extent of his symptoms from Parkinson’s disease in television ads on behalf of candidates who support embryonic stem cell research is part of a wider trend among stem cell opponents to discredit scientists and advocates, rather than debate the issue itself.

Opponents of the research claim that advocates of embryonic stem cell research—scientists and non-scientists alike—are exaggerating the research’s potential. They also argue that supporters are outside the ethical mainstream and will commit horrific acts if they are not stopped now. All of these attacks focus on discrediting individuals rather than arguing against the widely supported research. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research need to argue their case on the merits, and not by attacking the scientific community and its supporters.

The most popular attack on scientists and advocates is that they are overstating the potential of the research. Karl Rove infamously told the Denver Post editorial board that contrary to assertions by scientists and stem cell advocates, adult stem cells hold more medical promise than embryonic ones, even though he could not find a single credible scientist to support that claim.

Wesley Smith wrote in the Weekly Standard that, “[stem cell] scientists are acting increasingly like special interest lobbyists who are more than willing to twist the truth to gain access to the public trough.” Eric Cohen placed the blame on advocates, writing in The National Review that “many stem-cell advocates press for this view by distorting the facts about the promise of embryonic-stem-cell research….” The Family Research Council even released a short DVD entitled “Stem Cells: Beyond Hype, Real Hope.” The DVD claims that “there’s very little evidence that embryonic stem cells are effective in treating disease and repairing tissue.”

Of course, scientists who have used embryonic stem cells to cure paralysis, slow blindness, and reduce the effects of Parkinson’s disease in rats might disagree with the contention that the promise of the science is exaggerated. So would scientists who have used embryonic stem cells to create T-cells and pancreatic cells, which offer potential cures for AIDs and diabetes. Yet embryonic stem cell opponents paint scientists and advocates as over-hyping opportunists who lie to the American people in their desire to promote stem cell research. While some advocates have misstated the speed of stem cell therapy development, stem cell supporters as a whole have been careful to stress the time it will take for scientists to develop cures, which only makes the support of this research all the more urgent.

Scientists and advocates are also portrayed as callous and immoral every time embryonic stem cell research is misrepresented as killing human beings. The most prominent example was White House Press Secretary Tony Snow’s statement that President Bush vetoed legislation to support embryonic stem cell research because he “thinks murder is wrong”—a comment he was forced to apologize for. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) has stated that embryonic stem cell researchers are “destroying young human lives….” Even worse was Senatorial candidate Michael Steele’s comparison of embryonic stem cell researchers to Nazi scientists—a comment he was forced to retract due to public outcry, just like Snow.

Recent legislation pushed by embryonic stem cell opponents reinforces these attempts to portray scientists and advocates as outside the ethical mainstream. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was brought to the floor with another bill, the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act. This act outlawed gestating an embryo and then destroying it for stem cells. It was unclear why this act was necessary; every reputable scientist rejected the practice as unethical, and there had been no attempts to do it. The bill in effect encouraged people to see researchers as “mad scientists” willing to act outside moral norms. Robert George went even further, baselessly and breathlessly arguing in The Weekly Standard that the “long-term goal [of stem cell advocates] is indeed to create an industry in harvesting late embryonic and fetal body parts for use in regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.”

What is often forgotten is that these scientists and advocates accused of lying, murder, and other horrific acts are real people who are trying to do everything in their power to find cures for horrific diseases. Attacks on their character not only diminish public trust and respect for science, but also assault innocent, hard-working citizens dedicated to helping the sick. As stem cell pioneer Dr. John Gearhart said in reference to President Bush’s veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would increase access to stem cell lines, “[President Bush] continues to imply that scientific research is at odds with the ideals of a decent and humane society. That’s written in there. This plays on the perception that scientists are more interested in science than society and that scientists are less moral…This is completely wrong…I mean, I think I’m a pretty good guy.”

The irony is that in the absence of federal regulation, scientists have acted to regulate themselves. While little federal regulation of non-federally funded stem cell research exists, the National Academies have created voluntary guidelines for embryonic stem cell research. These comprehensive guidelines have been approved by universities, science organizations, and all major state stem cell initiatives. Far from wanting to act outside the norms of society, scientists are working to ensure compliance with ethical norms while the federal government‘s enormous regulatory potential is stalled.

Embryonic stem cell research opponents should cease their attempts to malign embryonic stem cell advocates and scientists. Limbaugh’s attack on Fox is not an isolated incident, but the worst excess of a strategy to discredit supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Just as Fox is not faking symptoms, scientists and advocates across the country are not faking their belief in the promise of stem cell research or their desire to pursue that research according to mainstream moral values. Limbaugh’s outburst was the symptom of a larger disease of attacking advocates and scientists that is sweeping the radical conservative movement, and it will take the public, not scientists, to provide the cure.

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Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow

Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform