By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 6/23/2005 5:39:07 PM ET 2005-06-23T21:39:07

President Bush took another stab at defending his opposition to research on human embryonic stem cells before a most congenial audience this week, the 11,000 “messengers” at the Southern Baptist Convention.

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As he has before, the president talked about “a culture of life” and “ethical science” and a “compassionate society.” What was remarkable was what he didn’t say. Not once in a speech to conservative evangelical Christians who voted for him by overwhelming margins was the president bold enough to utter the words “stem cells” or “embryonic.”

It would have been too risky. Opinion surveys have generally shown that Americans, by roughly 2 to 1, support such research, even when questioners remind them that an embryo is destroyed in the process. The issue is one that could even cleave Bush’s governing coalition: Last month, 50 Republicans crossed the aisle to join most Democrats in passing a bill that would overturn Bush’s ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines.

Key to the argument of Bush and others who oppose embryonic stem cell research is the idea that an embryo — a fertilized egg in its early stages of development, before it has reached a distinctive form — is a human life.

Much the same argument is used by opponents of legal abortion, who have sought to define life as beginning at the instant of conception; hence the president’s use of terms designed to appeal to Americans who already oppose abortion. That’s why the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, for example, refers to embryos as “embryonic humans,” while other activists have called unused embryos a “refugee population.”

The struggle to frame the conversation
It is also no accident that supporters of the science paint Bush and his allies as opposing “stem cell research,” even though it is only the small segment of research on embryonic cells that is controversial. Virtually all sides, including Bush and others who agree with him, say they welcome rapid development of treatments derived from adult stem cells and stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood.

“The fact that you see people on the opposition side of this argument now resorting to the phrase ‘embryonic humans’ is a sign that they believe the people on the side favoring stem cell research have actually made some progress by omitting the word ‘embryonic’ in their conversations,” said Chuck Reece, a public relations consultant in Atlanta with long experience in political and business rhetoric, first as press secretary to then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia and then as vice president of corporate communications for Coca-Cola Co.

Reece said in an interview that both sides were exploiting the public’s lack of familiarity with an excruciatingly complicated science. In such an environment, he said, whoever can set the terms of the discussion has a big advantage, because “context is everything in public debates like this, particularly public debates that are held in the media and that are ongoing all the time.”

“The people on both sides of this argument have one objective,” Reece said: “They want to change the thinking and behavior of the people who they believe are in the middle, who they believe can be swayed.”

What they’re all talking about
In that sort of battle, nuance, detail — often, even, facts themselves — get overlooked. What follows is a quick refresher.

All of the research that has brought real therapies to market has been conducted on adult stem cells and those harvested from umbilical cord blood. They are what is known as “multipotent” cells — that is, they have the potential to develop into multiple tissue types.

Embryonic stem cells are “pluripotent” — that is, they are believed to have the potential to develop into any tissue in the human body, perhaps someday yielding entire replacement organs.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research point to a wide variety of advances that have come from research on adult and cord blood stem cells, including treatments for leukemia, sickle cell anemia and other diseases. Research on embryonic cells, by contrast, has cured no patient of anything; even setting aside the moral considerations, they say, it is a waste of time and money.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that because the field is in its earliest stages — embryonic stem cells were isolated only seven years ago — it is too early for real-world therapies. Development has been stalled anyway, they contend, by the restrictions Bush placed on federal funding in August 2001.

Inside the numbers
Embryonic stem cells are most often harvested from unwanted embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization,  while fetal stem cells, which are often thrown into the same discussion, come from aborted fetuses. Opponents of abortion reject harvesting cells from aborted fetuses as the fruit of the poisonous tree, and no amount of debate is likely to change their minds. What’s really up for debate is taking cells from unused embryos.

Women who undergo in-vitro fertilization are usually given medication to spur production of eggs, which are then fertilized with a man’s sperm. Only the resulting embryos with the best chance to develop are implanted, so as many as two dozen can go unused.

In 2002, the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology and the RAND research organization found that about 400,000 surplus embryos were being stored at U.S. fertility clinics. It is morally wrong, proponents of embryonic stem cell research say, for all of those leftover embryos to go to waste.

That number, as widely cited as it is by supporters of research, is highly misleading. The survey went on to report that the vast majority of those embryos would never be available for research because the couples who created them were preserving them for future use. Only 2.8 percent could be targeted for research, said the study, which estimated that the yield would drop to only four-tenths of 1 percent after accounting for the embryos that would inevitably be damaged in the laboratory.

Only about 3,600 embryos would be “wasted,” then, not the hundreds of thousands that proponents cite. And in the context of current science, many — perhaps even most — of those 3,600 embryos would not yield any usable stem cell lines.

The cloning conundrum
But proponents of embryonic stem cell research are not alone in selectively choosing their terms. Opponents do the same, and for them, the operative word is “cloning.”

The process works this way, according to the National Institutes of Health: Researchers take an egg cell and remove the nucleus, which contains the genetic code. What is left is used to nourish another cell nucleus that is fused to it; the fused cell and its reproductions have the potential to develop into the embryo of a new organism.

In theory, the NIH says, scientists could take embryonic stem cells from the cloned embryo and generate genetically identical new tissues. This is called therapeutic cloning, because the cloned embryo is being created solely to treat a medical condition. South Korean researchers announced last month that they had created 11 human embryos and had extracted stem cells from them.

Opponents have the same objection that they do to embryonic stem cell research in general: It results in the destruction of the embryo. But they go further on cloning, arguing that there is nothing to stop scientists from taking it to the next step — allowing the embryo to develop normally into a new human being.

This is called reproductive cloning, and opponents hope that many people who support embryonic stem cell research in theory would reject the idea of supplanting God as the creator of life. By equating the general field of embryonic stem cell research with the potential abuses of one specific way of producing the cells — cloning — opponents cast the science as sacrilege.

Opponents argue that their stance is reflected in laws that ban reproductive cloning in every country, but that is not true — although it is commonly assumed to have done so, the United States has never adopted such a ban. Proponents, meanwhile, frequently avoid the question by calling the procedure by its technical description, somatic cell nuclear transfer.

A neutral observer might look at both sides’ strategies and conclude that what’s getting lost is the fundamental question: What do we do about the promises and pitfalls of embryonic stem cell research?

“I think we’re beyond debating the wisdom or lack thereof of using them [embryonic stem cells]. I think they are facts of life,” said Reece, the Atlanta consultant.

“I think who wins in any rhetorical battle over any issue like this is a function of who frames the conversation in a way that people can relate to and who has the most ability to reach the most people most often.”

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