Selling Stem Cells: How to Support DeGette-Castle and Avoid the Traps

January 11th, 2007

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Stem cell research supporters are aglow about the imminent congressional (re)debate on the DeGette-Castle embryonic stem cell research bill, beginning in the House today. They think they have the votes and the rock-solid support of the country. We hope they’re right – we’re big supporters of stem cell research. But we worry that some of the messaging the advocates are using could misfire.

Supporters of the research argue that this is a great weEditdge issue, since the majority of Americans support this potentially life-saving research and it has forced the President and other opponents to take the unpopular position of blocking this potential avenue to cures. Advocates believe that in the political game of rock-paper-scissors, the promise of finding medical cures trumps concerns about destruction of the embryo.

Indeed, studies show that while most Americans do confer some moral value to an embryo (68% according to a Center on Genetics and Public Policy 2005 poll), most also value the possibility of advancing medical cures over those moral qualms (by a margin of 56-30%, according to a Pew Research Center 2006 poll).

And yet, despite this apparent popularity, the stem cell ballot initiative in Missouri last year passed by only a razor-thin margin (51-49%), with proponents outspending opponents by nearly $30 million.

What happened? The real story is that the majority of Americans are concerned that our fast-paced scientific progress brings with it significant moral hazards. If you are a Third Way groupie (and really, who isn’t?), you will not be surprised that we call the folks in the middle of this debate the “stem cell grays”.

By contrast, the “stem cell polars” are on the extremes: some think that stem cell research raises absolutely no moral concerns; others beleive that it is so morally offensive that they would not support it even in if they knew it could cure a family member of a dreaded disease.

But to the stem cell grays, America is sort of like the crazy scientist in the lab – he might well be a genius, but he also might blow his lab sky-hight. This concern is also borne out in a series of Virginia Commonwealth University polls that reveal that 56% of Americans believe that science does not pay enough attention to moral values, and 51% also believe that “scientific research has created as many problems for society as solutions.”

Until stem cell advocates address these types of concerns head-on, they will continue to battle risky margins or Pyrrhic victories.

The DeGette-Castle bill has numerous ethical safeguards – proponents must not forget to highlight them. But they must also be mindful of the concerns of the stem cell grays, and temper their talk of America’s “race” with the rest of the world for scientific progress. Americans need to know that stem cell research isn’t a race—it’s a careful and controlled march forward in the advancement of science, with any eye always kept on the moral dimensions of the work.

For more on our insights and guidance on this important issue, please see our memo The Responsible Path Forward on Stem Cell Research—Supporting DeGette-Castle While Avoiding the Traps), including the Appendix (a memo by the Center for Genetics and Society, which shares important lessons learned from the debate on California’s stem cell policy).