John Leo

In his convention speech, Ron Reagan picked up the anti-religious thread of the Democratic stem cell campaign, saying that opponents of stem cell research think the destruction of microscopic embryos is "tantamount to murder," and think that "the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."

But William Saletan of Slate, a fine writer I usually disagree with, pulled an interesting switcheroo on the religion issue last week. Writing on Slate, he said the stem cell research movement has become ideological and is behaving like a religion. Nancy Pelosi talks rapturously of stem cells' "biblical power to cure." Members of Congress have hailed the "medical miracles" just over the horizon and the "strong faith that we will find a cure." Kerry hailed those who "pray each day for a cure" and expressed "full faith" that scientists will do morally correct stem cell research.

Saletan depicts this as a poll-driven religion. None of the diseases most susceptible to stem cell therapy touches more than 17 percent of Americans (affecting a family member, relative or close friend). But when Alzheimer's and President Reagan are tossed into the question, pro-stem cell numbers shoot up to 72 percent approval.

But stem cell research is regarded as extremely unlikely to lead to an Alzheimer's cure. Rick Weiss reported in The Washington Post: "Given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer's, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportion." This misinterpretation has mostly gone unchallenged by scientists and journalists. Stem cell research is likely to help with Parkinson's and other diseases, but it is hyped (falsely) as a probable Alzheimer's cure, because few Americans fear Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease, but a majority are terrified of Alzheimer's.

The lobby for embryonic stem cell funding is deeply dishonest. It involves a "ban" that isn't a ban, a claim of cures "right on our fingertips" (John Kerry) that falsely implies an early cure for Alzheimer's, and a discounting of promising stem cell research that doesn't involve the creation and destruction of embryos (cells from adult bone marrow, teeth and umbilical cords). Kerry and the Democrats have a case to make. They just don't want to make it honestly.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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