Kinsley: Stemming Stem Cells

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Pardon me for returning to stem cells. The Washington Post carried a reply to my column of last week criticizing President Bush’s policy on stem-cell research. The author was Jay Lefkowitz, Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser until moments ago. Even if you don’t share my obsession with this topic, Lefkowitz’s article is interesting as an illustration of modern Washington dishonesty.

The distinguishing feature of modern Washington dishonesty is that it is almost transparent, barely intended to deceive. It uses true-ish factoids to construct an implied assertion about reality that is not just false but preposterous. Modern Washington dishonesty is more like an elaborate, stylized ritual than a realistic Western-style performance. The goal is not to persuade but merely to create an impression that there are two sides to the question without actually having to supply one of them.

Lefkowitz, for example, denies that Bush’s stem-cell policy, announced in 2001, was “unexpectedly restrictive.” It was “actually a liberalization” of previous rules. It included “the first-ever offer of federal aid” for embryonic stem-cell research. And Bush has “removed barriers to privately funded stem cell research” imposed by President Clinton.

You don’t need to know the first thing about stem cells to smell something fishy here. It’s not just me: The entire world is under the impression that Bush has restricted embryonic stem-cell research. That is how the story was reported two years ago and how it has been universally summarized ever since. If this storyline is 180-degrees wrong, the White House has made almost no effort to correct it. Furthermore, the revised version makes no sense. Bush is a strong believer in the right to life from the moment of conception or claims to be. His predecessor was (and is) a strong believer in abortion rights. Why would Clinton have a terribly restrictive policy on the use of embryos in medical research, and why would Bush liberalize it?

But these questions are only puzzling if you forget that modern Washington dishonesty does not require plausibility. More puzzling is whether the politicians and their advisers who build these alternative realities don’t yet realize that there’s this thing called the Internet, or whether they realize it and don’t care. It is the work of minutes to Google Lefkowitz’s storyline into shreds.

In 1996 and ever since, Congress has forbidden the use of federal funds for research involving the destruction of human embryos. The potential of embryonic stem cells became apparent in the late 1990s, and in 2000 the National Institutes of Health announced that it would fund stem-cell research as long as the actual extraction of cells from embryos was done by someone else. President Clinton strongly supported this policy. Presidential candidate George W. Bush opposed it. He opposed all federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, no matter who extracted the cells.

When Bush became president, he took a less extreme position, but not much less. He was expected to ban research involving future embryos. The surprise was that he also banned research using embryos already sitting on fertility clinic shelves and headed for destruction in any event. That’s what made his policy “unexpectedly restrictive.” Bush’s policy weakened previous restrictions in a couple of small ways (for example, fewer rules about getting consent from the embryo donors). But to claim that he liberalized the rules overall is ridiculous. Bush’s “first-ever” federal funding of embryo research was only first-ever because the forces on his side of the argument had managed to prevent it until then.

Lefkowitz sticks with the official story that there are over 60 stem-cell “lines” that meet Bush’s criteria and are available for research. He concedes only that most of them have not yet cleared a regulatory process that “takes many months.” This contradicts hundreds of articles in the general and scientific press asserting that far fewer than 60 useable lines are available. These articles do not mention that the problem is only a matter of time. How many months is “many months” anyway? It’s been 26 months already. And whose rules are slowing the approval process? I name no names.

There are almost 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, most of which will be destroyed eventually. They are the source of embryos for medical research, and that is why I asserted that “not a single embryo dies because of stem-cell research.” Lefkowitz calls this “pure sophistry.” I agree that if you believe the life of a five-day-old microscopic clump of cells is as valuable as your life or mine, the fact that the embryo will be destroyed anyway doesn’t matter. But that doesn’t mean the fact doesn’t exist. To those with a less extreme view, it matters a lot.

There isn’t much sophistry in Lefkowitz’s piece because there isn’t much argument of any sort. He doesn’t attempt to answer—he doesn’t even refer to—the column’s main challenge to President Bush: How can you restrict embryonic stem-cell research because it encourages the creation and destruction of embryos, and yet praise the fertility industry that creates and destroys embryos by the thousands (and would supply the embryos for stem-cell research, if that were allowed)?

But why get into tedious arguments when bogus facts can see you through?

Michael Kinsley is Slate’s founding editor.