Spin the Pope

Spin the Pope

Spin the Pope

How you look at things.
July 26 2001 3:00 AM

Spin the Pope

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It's hard enough being president in the age of global media. Words leave your mouth and are instantly sliced, diced, twisted, spun, molded into conventional wisdom, and transmitted around the world by reporters and pundits. But at least you have the option of practical clarity. You can say, "I'll veto McCain-Feingold," and everyone knows what you mean.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Now imagine being pope. You're supposed to float above worldly debates. You get moral authority at the price of clarity. You're not allowed to give McCain-Feingold the thumbs-down. All you can do is enunciate principles, which leaves you at the media's mercy. That's what the Vatican discovered this week when Pope John Paul II, during a visit by President Bush, weighed in on human embryonic stem-cell research.

If your newspaper carried the Dow Jones wire story on the pope's remarks, you may have read that the pope urged Bush to "ban human embryos created for research." If your paper carried the Associated Press story or if you watched NBC's Today show or CNN's Inside Politics, you were told that the pope asked Bush not to spend federal funds on embryonic stem-cell research. Not true. The pope said nothing about banning or funding. Here's what he said on the issue:

Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils, such as euthanasia, infanticide, and most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process. A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death. In defending the right to life, in law and through a vibrant culture of life, America can show a world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product of his technology.

This is the way popes talk. They give you the concept, and you figure out how to apply it. Discerning which technologies "devalue" human life, and how to "reject" them, is—pending further clarity from His Holiness—up to you.

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Such abstraction gives the pope's adversaries a big advantage in the spin game. In this case, they lost no time spinning the pontiff's remarks as tacit approval of limited embryonic stem-cell research. A spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine noted that the pope had specifically criticized the "creation" of human embryos for such research rather than the use of embryos left over from in vitro fertilizations. "If the pope is making that distinction, then it seems to give the president room to make the same distinction," said the spokesman. Stem-cell advocates also seized on the pope's reference to "human life in the womb," inferring that he, like many conservative supporters of stem-cell research, regarded implanted embryos as more precious than frozen embryos.

The Bush administration encouraged this spin. In remarks following the pope's speech, Bush rendered the pope's message even more abstract, reducing it from a principle to a theme. When asked how he would implement the pontiff's comments about "the manipulation of embryos," Bush portrayed the pope as saying simply "that we ought to take into the account the preciousness of life," which Bush interpreted as allowing for science aimed at "saving life." Backstage, according to the Washington Post, "Administration officials said the [pope's] statement was sufficiently ambiguous to provide support for the president if he approves the use of fertility clinic embryos. … The aides said the pope's statement could have been much broader." Bush's point man, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., went on television to frame the pontiff's statement as consistent with Frist's compromise legislation. "We need to ban the creation of human embryos, just as the pope said, for research purposes," he said. "But we need to allow adult stem-cell research to continue and support it heavily, [and] embryonic stem-cell research, but using only those cells that are of no use and have already been discarded."

Pundits joined the frenzy. On Fox News, Mara Liasson said the pope's attack on the "creation" rather than use of embryos for research "sounds like he is allowing for some room for the kind of compromise that Sen. Bill Frist has laid out. … His words certainly seem to say that if the embryos aren't created for research purposes … maybe they can—you could get stem cells from them." Fellow panelist Mort Kondracke agreed: "This looks like a change of position on the part of the church." On Hardball, Chris Matthews declared that "the pope left [Bush] wiggle room" by focusing on embryo "creation" and failing to "come out against the Frist plan." Perhaps the Holy Father was reserving his amendments for the conference committee.

Meanwhile, another spin hurricane headed off in the opposite direction. The National Right to Life committee, eager to douse the loophole theories, asserted that "the pope is just as opposed to killing frozen embryos as he is to creating embryos in order to kill them for research." Several media outlets, seizing on the pope's reference to "related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos," inferred that he was attributing a similar moral equivalence to those three practices. "The pope told the president in no uncertain terms that research involving embryonic stem cells was an evil on the same level as infanticide," Peter Jennings told ABC viewers. The Post's lead sentence said the pope had told Bush "that the creation of human embryos for stem cell research is equivalent to infanticide."

Alarmed by runaway speculation that the pope had gone soft on stem cells, the Vatican went into ecclesiastical damage control. In a statement reminiscent of clarifications issued by political campaigns ("The Holy Father has wanted to take this opportunity …"), the statement made clear that 1) the pope was specifically troubled by the creation of embryos for research; and 2) his condemnation "also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos" for "biological material," whether or not they are "specifically 'produced' for this purpose." The loophole spin was wrong.

So was the moral equivalence spin. The pope hadn't equated stem-cell research with infanticide. He had described a cultural process, a "coarsening of consciences" that began with abortion and led to various "related evils." His point was that these evils flowed from a loss of respect for life, not that they manifested that loss of respect in the same way, to the same degree, or with the same consequences. While denouncing embryonic stem-cell research per se, the pope was arguing that the creation of human embryos for such research was a further step down the road of cultural deterioration, and that the latter practice both exceeded the former and flowed from it. Following this cultural logic, the same could be said of abortion and infanticide.

The poor pope. He was trying to draw distinctions and connections, trying to convey that some things are worse than others but that the lesser evils must be shunned because they lead to the greater. If only he could fit that into a sound bite.