Biotech Debates Are Being Muddled by the Media

The Biotech Century is now upon us. Everything from the medical treatments we receive to the food we eat is being transformed. The new biotechnologies, which come with unprecedented power, will be able to both help and hurt humanity. Even today, these new abilities are increasingly within our grasp.

In our utilitarian society, research science tends to plow ahead uninhibited by the constraints of moral principles and common sense. We must assume that if it can be developed, it will someone, somewhere who sees some sort of gain in doing so. No matter how controversial or problematic, there will always be a host of "mad scientists" with equally mad venture capitalists backing the hopes of a profit no matter the societal cost. This is, of course, why we need clear and vigorous debate in this country (and around the world) on what constraints ought to be placed on these new abilities.

Unfortunately, clear and vigorous debate on some biotechnologies isn't happening in the United States. The biggest conversation right now is about embryonic stem cell research. One reason is because the media is applying abortion categories to an issue that has virtually nothing to do with the right to "choice." Here are some recent examples (emphases mine).

  • "Abortion debate politics defining NIH grant battle." - Subtitle to "Stem Cell Research Threatened," by Anthony Shadid, The Boston Globe, March 13, 2001.
  • "Many anti-abortion groups oppose the plans, and President Bush has signaled he may block the plans." - "U.S. Sued Over Stem Cell Research," Associated Press, March 8, 2001.
  • "But Bush opposes abortion, and anti-abortion groups have lined up against the use of human stem cells from embryos." - "Bush Administration Reviews Stem Cell Research," Reuters, March 6, 2001.
  • "[Embryonic stem cell] research has been heatedly opposed by anti-abortion activists." - "Stem Cell Study Decision Due By Summer," by Marlene Cimons, The Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2001.
  • "Anti-abortion activists oppose [embryonic stem cell] research because human embryos must be destroyed to extract the master cells, but scientists say research with them could lead to revolutionary therapies for Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases." - "HHS Encourages Research Applications," by Laura Meckler, Associated Press, February 28, 2001.
  • A number of religious and anti-abortion groups stridently oppose the use of embryos or stem cells from discarded fetuses." - "Analysis: Stem Cell Issue Looms for Thompson Speech," by Kurt Samson, UPI, February 28, 2001.
  • "The rule [to give government money to scientists studying embryonic stem cells, as long as taxpayer money is not used to extract the cells from embryos], which has been harshly criticized by many abortion opponents, requires that the cells be derived from embryos obtained from fertility clinics, with the express consent of couples who no longer want children." - "Clinics Full of Frozen Embryos Offer New Route to Adoption," by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, February 25, 2001.
  • "But the research and the "harvesting" of stem cells from embryos has been condemned by religious and anti-abortion groups." - "Dolly the Sheep Firm 'Reprograms' Animal Cell," by Janet McBride, Reuters, February 23, 2001.
  • "Anti-abortion groups oppose fetal and embryonic stem cell research..." - "Scientists Lobby Bush on Research," Associated Press, February 22, 2001.
  • "One source of stem cells is aborted fetuses or fertility clinics' discarded embryos. However, this is especially contentious since anti-abortion groups oppose fetal and embryonic stem cell research..." - "Umbilical Cords Could Repair Brains," by Daniel Q. Haney, Associated Press, February 19, 2001.


For the record, the articles above did not list any other opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

For those of you who may have heard about this research but don't know many specifics, a quick primer. There are two types of cells in your body--"regular" cells and stem cells. Regular cells are the specialized cells that make up your organs, blood and so forth that do the everyday work of life. Stem cells are precursor cells that create these specialized cells. Stem cells are generally divided into the categories of embryonic and adult.

Embryonic stem cells come from embryos (which must be destroyed to obtain the cells) and are early stem cells--less specialized than their adult counterparts. Because they are less specialized, they are thought to have greater flexibility to produce different types of specialized cells. However, by being less specialized, it likely takes a great deal more work to get them to produce the specialized cells needed for a proposed treatment.

If embryonic stem cells are taken from an embryo of a different genetic makeup than the stem cell recipient, the recipient will likely be faced with taking immunosuppresant drugs for the rest of his life. That problem could be avoided if the person were to clone himself (itself an ethical issue) and use the clone's stem cells for treatment. As much as some people may be willing to sacrifice other human embryos for their own treatment, some may balk at having to kill their twin for their own survival.

Adult stem cells are more specialized than embryonic cells and currently reside in your body and mine, creating needed specialized cells on a continual basis. Blood stem cells create blood cells; brain stem cells create brain cells. Because adult stem cells are more specialized, they seem to be easier to manipulate for medical treatments. They are also thought to have less flexibility to be used for treatments in tissues other than where they are currently working. Stem cells have not yet been identified or are difficult to come by in a number of tissues and organs. However, researchers have been able to convert several specialized stem cells types into other types of stem cells (e.g., blood to brain and brain to blood), casting doubt long-term on the necessity of embryo destruction.

Soon after the first isolation of stem cells was announced, scientists began clamoring for the National Institutes of Health to fund embryonic stem cell research. The possibility that these precursor cells can treat a whole host of currently untreatable diseases seemed too important an opportunity to pass up. However, the specter of doing research on cells from human embryos destroyed for research was offensive to many, including people who generally support abortion rights. The United Methodist Church has been a long-time supporter of abortion rights, but opposes destructive human embryo research.

To anti-abortion activists, this was another example of government-sanctioned (and, in this case, possibly government-funded) destruction of human life. Since many of these activists have an infrastructure to make their voices heard, they did so. Unfortunately, the media reports seem to indicate (as in the examples above) that these are virtually the only people opposed to this research.

One of the problems has to do with the media's use of labels. What does it mean to say "anti-abortion activists" or "anti-abortion groups"? Does it mean that abortion is the primary issue that that such groups address? Or does it refer to any group that holds a negative view of abortion, no matter what else they do? I dare say that most people who hear an "anti-abortion" label would believe the former, not the latter. And on this issue, a number of people and groups have publicly declared their opposition to this research who either don't address abortion per se or don't make it their primary focus. The main coalition against this research, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, not only has not taken any stand on abortion, but they have many organizations and people who back them who certainly don't fit an "activist" mold.

The media has created confusion in the public by creating the false impression that the issue of destructive human embryo research is intertwined with abortion. But the core issues in destructive human embryo research are not about a conflict of rights between mother and child. The issues are more like, "Is the embryo property to be done with as its owner wills? Does the Nuremburg Code, which demands human beings give consent for experimental research, apply to those who cannot give consent, such as embryos?" The confusion can cause the public to use abortion rights categories to try to understand complex moral issues of biotechnology instead of looking at an issue itself.

Now this isn't entirely the fault of the media. Many conservative organizations often view the media with a degree of distrust and fail to build productive relationships with reporters. This can help sow a great deal of confusion.

Also, the visible participation of avowed anti-abortion activists in biotechnology debates can also skew the public's response. The public may be tempted to make a decision based upon organizational personalities rather than the facts of an issue itself. These activists and groups in particular should use extreme caution when publicly addressing biotechnology issues and refuse to speak authoritatively when they are not suited to do so. Since abortion is such a divisive issue in the public arena, visible participation may actually harm positions or movements which the activists support.

Groups where abortion rights issues are not a primary focus should request that reporters refer to them by the issues they do primarily address. And groups that do not address abortion should make an extra effort to make that clear with the media when appropriate.

The media's role is to help the public better understand the issues that face society and the world. When they fail to adequately educate the public, the public's freedom may be at risk. With the life and death nature of new and emerging biotechnologies, the media needs to do a better job of equipping the public for an honest debate. If they fail to do so, our humanity, not just our freedom, may be at risk. 


Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on