THE DISCOVERY: What It Means for Framing & News Coverage

Conservatives are promoting Bush as the biomedical Atticus Finch. Shown here posing with a "snowflake" baby, adopted and born from left over in vitro clinic embryos.

Some collected thoughts on what the stem cell discovery means for the framing of the debate, trends in news coverage and public opinion:

---->As I wrote yesterday, perhaps the biggest impact on the framing of the stem cell debate is to inject a booster shot of resonance to conservative claims that pursuing embryonic stem cell research is not necessary and that we can gain everything we need from morally unproblematic adult stem cell sources. "Moving forward with social consensus," is how William Hurlburt has described this middle way frame.

The interpretation has been pushed since at least 2005 when cell reprogramming was highlighted in a Presidential Bioethics Advisory committee report. Yet with each successive scientific study on adult sources, the frame has gained more prominence.

Now as Sheryl Stohlberg writes in today's NY Times, the scientific facts on the ground lend greater credibility to conservative claims: "The findings have put people on both sides of the stem cell divide on nearly equal political footing. Each side can now say it has fruitful research to pursue."

As I wrote yesterday, the discovery is not only likely to make it increasingly politically untenable for some of the swing members of Congress to support expanded funding for embryonic stem cell research, it is also likely to catalyze a major trend of 50/50 balance in news coverage, with journalists weighing the scientific claims of conservatives in equal measure with those of many scientists.

This would be a major shift in the news portrayal of the debate, since until now, as I detail in my research, funding advocates have enjoyed more favorable coverage and have held the upper hand in terms of scientific authority. These favorable media trends have helped swing public support for expanded funding among key groups such as Catholics and Mainline Protestants nearly 20% since 2002.

---->The Bush White House is literally grinning. Bush in their mind was the ethical decider, the Atticus Finch who told scientists to go back to the drawing board and find a procedure that doesn't "cross an important moral boundary." One former Bush Bioethics adviser says that Bush pushed for a "a model of ethical scientific research for a morally pluralistic society,"

Here's what the Washington Post reports:

"The science has overtaken the politics," Karl Zinsmeister, the chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush, said in an interview yesterday. "If you set reasonable parameters and offer a lot of encouragement and public funding, science will solve this dilemma, and you don't have to have a culture war about this."

At the NY Times, Stohlberg has this additional quote promoting Bush as the biomedical Atticus Finch:

"This is very much in accord with the president's vision from the get-go," said Karl Zinsmeister, a domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush who kept the president apprised of the work. "I don't think there's any doubt that the president's drawing of lines on cloning and embryo use was a positive factor in making this come to fruition."

Yet no less than James Thomson offers the WPost a different take on Bush as the stern ethical decider who pushed scientists to do better. "My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years."

---->In the same article, advocates for expanded funding present the first signs of their emerging counter-argument in support of staying on course with multiple paths of research:

"I don't think this changes the debate," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a key participant in the House debate. "We still need to encourage all types of research, and we need to put ethical oversight in place."

"While this is exciting basic research, it could still take years to get this to work in humans in a way that could be used clinically," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "I cannot overstate that this is early-stage research and that we should not abandon other areas of stem cell research."

---->The Bush White House is not the only actor claiming political credit. Mitt Romney is arguing that he is one of the few political leaders to take a consistent principled position on the balance between promise and ethics, incorporating advocacy for cell reprogramming research into his campaign platform:

Mitt Romney's campaign is seeking to capitalize on today's announcement that scientists have created stem cells without having to make or destroy embryos. The campaign points out that Romney has long called for a less ethically- and morally-charged alternative and highlighted an op-ed piece published today on National Review Online that praises him as the only presidential candidate who has embraced an unambiguous and principled stance on the alternatives, incorporating them into his proposed domestic policy. Romney's campaign also circulated an op-ed piece published in June, in which Romney called on Congress to support such research into alternatives.


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I think we really need to push back against's Bush's frame that he "won" because of a principled stand. As one commenter on my blog noted, this is only another baby step (pardon me) towards shifting away from Embryonic Stem Cell research. In order to make the process work, biologists who study stem cells will need to have real embryonic stem cells to study so that they can continue the process of moving away from blastulas. Cutting off the funding from ESCr will cripple researchers such as Thomson from making further process towards "ethical" stem cell research.

And I have often wondered at the ethical superiority of disposing of unused embryos as opposed to using them for research.