The religion of stem-cell research.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 10 2004 7:11 PM

Revelation of the Nerds

The religion of stem-cell research.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The hot new issue of 2004 was born in a lab dish. As Slate's Timothy Noah documented last week, "stem cells" were mentioned 20 times at the Democratic National Convention, more than unemployment and abortion combined. John Kerry is raising the issue at practically every campaign stop. Polls suggest it could attract enough independents and Republicans to decide the election. Pundits are amazed. How has science trumped politics, ideology, and religion as a campaign issue?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I'll tell you how: Science has become political, ideological, and religious.

The conceit of the stem-cell movement is just the opposite. "Here in America, we don't sacrifice science for ideology," Kerry declared Saturday as he devoted his weekly radio address to stem cells for the second time this summer. The Kerry campaign charged that President Bush "has politicized science" and promised that Kerry would choose "scientific research over politics." In a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention, Ron Reagan, son of the late president, noted that opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, which entails the destruction of microscopic embryos, regard such destruction as "tantamount to murder." Reagan concluded, "Their belief is just that, an article of faith, and they are entitled to it. But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."

For years, stem-cell researchers were indeed scientific, apolitical, and irreligious. That's why they had no juice. On Aug. 9, 2001, when Bush authorized federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research but limited it to cell lines created before that date, there wasn't much outcry for more freedom. So, 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. "Three years ago, the president enacted a far-reaching ban on stem-cell research," Kerry asserted in his radio address. Repeating a pledge made by Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention, Kerry promised twice that he would "lift the ban on stem-cell research." But no such ban exists. Embryonic stem-cell research is unrestricted in the private sector. State and local governments can fund it as they wish. The federal government spent nearly $200 million on adult stem-cell research last year and nearly $25 million on research involving the roughly 20 approved embryonic lines. As today's Washington Post observes, what Bush actually did was "to allow, for the first time, the use of federal funds" for embryonic stem-cell research.

Why does Kerry call it a "ban on stem-cell research" instead of a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001? Because the shorter phrase, while scientifically inaccurate in four egregious ways, is more politically effective.

The stem-cell movement has become ideological. One scientist who is organizing his colleagues for Kerry told the Post that stem-cell research has become an "icon" for broader complaints about Bush's policies. He added that his group has adopted "ideology trumps science" as its theme. A Democratic political strategist told American Demographics, "It's more than just stem-cell research—it's the symbolism of announcing a plan to eradicate major diseases, and part of the Baby Boomers' health care crisis."

To protect the symbolism, facts must be shaded. Kerry's pollsters must phrase the destruction of embryos in the past tense to dissociate this unpleasant necessity from the benefits of stem-cell research. The research must be insulated from comparative cost-benefit analysis by asking voters, through ballot measures, to designate billions of dollars exclusively for stem-cell work instead of other medical studies. California is now pursuing this; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wants other states to follow suit. Any limit on stem-cell funding must be vilified as immoral. Stem cells pose a choice "between true compassion and mere ideology," Ron Reagan declared in his convention speech. In a statement yesterday, John Edwards warned critics, "It is against our national character to look the other way when people are suffering."

Above all, the stem-cell movement has become religious. According to a poll taken in June by Results for America, a pro-stem-cell group, none of the diseases most susceptible to stem-cell therapy touches more than 17 percent of Americans (by affecting them, a family member, or a close friend). But throw in Alzheimer's disease, and the number leaps to 28 percent. Seventy-two percent of respondents say they would be more likely "to support stem-cell research if you knew that experts think it may hold the key to curing the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted President Reagan." Kerry's pollsters have seen the same effect. When they tell voters that "stem-cell research is being used by scientists trying to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease" as well as Parkinson's and diabetes, 69 percent support the research.

The trouble is, the Alzheimer's hype isn't true. On June 10, the Post's Rick Weiss reported that "given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer's, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm [for stem cell research] stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions. It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists." Why don't scientists dispel the myth? "People need a fairy tale," NIH researcher Ronald McKay told Weiss. "Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."

Two days after Weiss' article appeared, Kerry used his radio address to peddle the Alzheimer's fairy tale. He spoke of "the limitless potential of our science" and of things unseen: "the cures that are there, if only [scientists] are allowed to look."

He emphasized the power of will, hope, and belief in the absence of evidence.

There is a moment after you get the call from a doctor that you or a loved one must face a disease like Alzheimer's where you decide that it can't mean the end—that you won't let it. So in our own way, we become researchers and scientists. We become advocates and friends, and we reach for a cure that cannot—that must not–be too far away. Some call this denial. But I'm sure that Nancy Reagan—the wife of an eternal optimist—calls it hope. … Millions share this hope, and it is because of their commitment that stem-cell research has brought us closer to finding ways to treat Alzheimer's and many other diseases.

A month later, 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, adding, "Embryonic stem cell research offers new dreams to so many people." Democrats even engraved the myth in their platform: "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."

In his radio address this weekend, Kerry blamed Bush's stem-cell restrictions for "shutting down some of the most promising work to prevent, treat and cure Alzheimer's." With the salesmanship of a faith healer, Kerry dangled promises no responsible scientist would countenance. "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."

Kerry's appeals to faith and prayer don't end there. He asks voters to believe, on the same spiritual basis, that science will create ethical boundaries for itself. "We must look to the future not with fear but with the hope and the faith that advances in medicine will advance our best values," he pleaded in a recent speech promoting stem-cell research. "I have full faith that our scientists will go forward with a moral compass," he added. All we must do, he advised, is "pursue the limitless potential of science—and trust that we can use it wisely."

I want to have faith, John. I want to hope and dream. I want to believe in the magic and the miracles and the power of prayer. But if you want to preserve trust in science, stick to the evidence.