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The Silent Bias

How the media quietly gives cloning advocates a pass.

11:00 PM, Dec 4, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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MUCH OF THE CURRENT DEBATE over what is generally known as therapeutic cloning--that is, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) cloning conducted for research purposes rather than reproduction--centers on the nature of the thing that is created by the cloning process. Until recently, this issue wasn't controversial: Cloning, it was widely agreed, created a new human embryo.

Thus, in 1997, President Bill Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission's report on the ethical issues involved in human cloning stated: "The Commission began its discussion fully recognizing that any effort in humans to transfer a somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated egg [SCNT] involves the creation of an embryo."

In 2000, Robert P. Lanza, Arthur L. Caplan, and other biotechnologist and bioethicist co-authors acknowledged in the Journal of the American Medical Association that "cell replacement through nuclear transfer," e.g., SCNT therapeutic cloning, "requires the deliberate creation and disaggregation of a human embryo." Similarly, a 2002 report published by the National Academy of Sciences stated that after successful SCNT, "a series of sequential cell divisions leads to the formation of a blastocyst, or pre-implantation embryo." (A blastocyst is the scientific name given to a human embryo at about the fifth day of development.)

Also in 2002, in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the President's Council on Bioethics, while deeply divided over the moral propriety of therapeutic cloning, unanimously agreed that SCNT creates an embryo, that is, an individual nascent human life:

[T]he initial product of somatic nuclear transfer is a living (one-celled) human embryo. The immediate intention of transferring the nucleus is precisely to produce just such an entity: one that is alive (rather than non living), one that is human (rather than nonhuman or animal), and one that is an embryo, an entity capable of developing into an articulated organismic whole (rather than just a somatic cell capable only of replication into more of the same cell type.)

THIS CONSENSUS DID NOT LAST. Public polling made it evident that a majority opposed therapeutic cloning when the poll question acknowledged that cloning creates a new human embryo. (For example, a recent Virginia Commonwealth University poll found that by margin of 59 percent to 34 percent, respondents opposed "using cloning technology if it is used to create human embryos that will provide stem cells for human therapeutic purposes.")

To overcome their political problem, biotech industry lobbyists and their allies mounted a propaganda campaign intended to turn accepted biology on its head by denying that human SCNT culminates in the creation of a new human embryo. What followed is a case study in media bias.

In the great cloning debate, the mainstream media follows Big Biotech's lead as faithfully as Ginger Rodgers did while dancing with Fred Astaire. Without missing a beat, the media obediently began to omit mention of the embryo in its descriptions of therapeutic cloning.

One could fill pages with examples of this bias by omission, but here are just a few examples--all occurring in the last week of November 2005:

* In a November 25 story on the ethical problems facing South Korean cloning researcher Woo-Suk Hwang, New York Times reporter James Brooke described SCNT:

This technique is an essential first step in the proposed treatment known as therapeutic cloning, which envisions converting one of a patient's adult cells into an embryonic cell, and then converting that cell into new adult cells to replace any damaged tissue.

The description makes it appear as if an adult cell is simply morphed into an embryonic cell, when, in fact, as Lanza and Caplan described in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 2000, the cloned embryo is created for the purpose of destroying it in order to obtain its embryonic stem cells. In other words, the discussion left out the very facts that make therapeutic cloning so controversial.

* In reporting about a lawsuit filed against a proposed ballot initiative in Missouri that would legalize therapeutic cloning, on November 29, Kit Wagar of the Kansas City Star, wrote:

The issue revolves around a laboratory procedure used to grow stem cells called somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as therapeutic cloning. The procedure takes genetic material from a patient and inserts it into a human egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. The cell is stimulated and begins to divide, much like an egg cell fertilized by a sperm cell. The process produces early stem cells, which have the potential to grow into all the different tissues of the body.

Once again, the embryo is left out entirely. Indeed, note that the reporter doesn't even mention embryonic stem cells. Rather, they are called "early stem cells," an advocacy term coined recently by cloning advocates--and as here, just as quickly adopted by a compliant media.

* An article by Rob Roberts in the November 28 edition of the Kansas City Business Journal about the proposed initiative also offered an inaccurate description of therapeutic cloning:

SCNT begins when researchers remove the nucleus from a human egg cell and replace it with the nucleus of a somatic cell . . . from the patient. The cell then is stimulated to begin dividing, and within five days it grows into a ball of cells, called a blastocyst, containing early stem cells that can be coaxed to differentiate into any type of human cell.

But as we have seen, a blastocyst is an embryo, although you would not know it by Roberts' reporting, which depicts it as a mere "ball of cells." And again notice the use of the advocacy term, "early stem cells," instead of the discarded term, "embryonic" stem cells.

* Meanwhile, a United Press International article about the proposed Missouri initiative omits any mention of the embryo and, indeed, of SCNT and cloning altogether, calling it "therapeutic stem cell research":

Medical researchers, patient advocates and business development groups support the measure they say would protect the legality of therapeutic stem-cell research. At issue is the definition of human. Religious groups argue that a cloned cell is a human being, a definition with which most scientists disagree.

It isn't just scientists: Nobody with any scientific knowledge believes that a cloned cell is a human being. Many, however, believe quite accurately, that embryos brought into existence through SCNT are human embryos, that is, they are human organisms, or at the very least, nascent human life.

THESE INSTANCES of bias by omission are so ubiquitous that one is tempted to despair that a fair debate is all but impossible. But every once in a great while, even as the media pushes the canard that cloning doesn't create an embryo, a scientist with integrity refuses to go along.

Last June, MSNBC science correspondent Alan Boyle interviewed James Thomson, the first scientist to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells. When the subject turned to therapeutic cloning, Boyle trotted out the usual pro-cloning meme that SCNT doesn't create an embryo:

Boyle: The people who use nuclear transfer generally say that the technique is optimized for producing the stem cells rather than making babies. They would not want to equate this with the process that produces embryos that are fit for implantation, and they'd argue that they're using the reproductive process differently.

But Thomson laudably refused to compromise accurate science for political expediency:

Thomson: See, you're trying to redefine it away, and it doesn't work. If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, and you give it to somebody who didn't know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is.

It's true that they have a much lower probability of giving rise to a child . . . But by any reasonable definition, at least at some frequency, you're creating an embryo. If you try to define it away, you're being disingenuous.

Thomson had it just right. Too bad the mainstream media is so deeply in the thrall of Big Biotech that they are not the ones reporting this important truth.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow for the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World. (Smith has informally advised, on a pro bono basis, opponents of the proposed Missouri initiative mentioned in this column.)