John Leo

Just when you think the debate over embryonic stem cells can't get any more degraded, an outfit called the Campaign to Defend the Constitution comes along and proves you wrong. The group took out two vitriolic full-page ads in The New York Times (at $200,000 a pop) lashing out at religious conservatives as extremists and ideologues for opposing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR).

This was too much for my friend and former colleague Peter Steinfels, who, although religious and morally nuanced, is allowed to write a weekly "Beliefs" column for The New York Times. He wondered whether the labels "extremist" and "ideologue" were supposed to cover all religious people who have moral qualms about killing embryos. He wrote: What about the Catholic bishops, who opposed the Iraq war, or "the respected bioethicists who advised the president on his position five years ago"? Are they all unprincipled people imposing their will on the American public?

Steinfels went to the trouble of interviewing one Jessica Smith, the director of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, who "seemed uncertain" about whether religious folk who disagree with her are all extremists. She must be new at the propaganda game because she foolishly told Steinfels that whether people like the Catholic bishops are extremists "depends on the topic." Presumably this means that the bishops keep shuffling between extremism and non-extremism, the latter occurring when they agree with Smith. The latter would happen on the death penalty and soft treatment of illegal immigrants.

Smith does not appear to own a very subtle mind, but then you don't really need one if your game is hardball partisan politics. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution bills itself as an online grassroots group of 90,000 people. It would be more accurate to call it a well-heeled creation of the Tides Foundation and its stepchild, the Tides Center, both of which concentrate on funding left causes, sometimes extreme left causes.

Stem-cell funding is a great issue for Democrats and the left this year because it's a rare instance of substantial numbers of traditionalists willing to oppose a traditional value, in this case, that human life, even infinitesimal forms of human life, must not be destroyed for research purposes. The traditional value at stake holds that slippery-slope concerns are valid -- once softened up by the distant prospect of great cures, the public may be willing to move from tiny embryos to larger ones, and then perhaps to the destruction of small children with defects, which Princeton ethicist Peter Singer already favors.

Slippery-slope fears also apply to the possible impact of embryonic stem-cell funding on the abortion wars. In 2001, columnist and author Anna Quindlen said she thinks that the stem-cell issue will decrease opposition to abortion. Once the killing of embryos is routine and government-financed, will size matter?

Those who favor spending federal money on ESCR have a number of clear advantages. One is that opponents of such funding have made no effort to prevent the destruction of surplus embryos created through in vitro fertilization, a glaring inconsistency if protection of nascent human life is so important.

Another big advantage for backers of ESCR is support from the mainstream media. The news business has clearly taken a stand, overplaying the promise of early results, underplaying the advances in adult stem-cell research, and ignoring the large and growing amount of non-federal money available for embryonic work. Portuguese neurologist Carlos Lima and his team published research showing that a patient's own adult stem cells can treat paralysis caused by spinal cord injury. It's not a cure. It's an impressive advance. Wesley Smith, on his blog, Secondhand Smoke, wrote, "I will bet that the mainstream media ignores the story." He won the bet. They did ignore it.

Even worse, mainstream media have a way of dismissing moral objections to ESCR as trivial and marginal concerns. One report referred to the tiny embryos as "unused material," which sounds like something Goebbels would say.

Conservative opposition to evolutionary theory and resistance to data on global warming has hurt too, enabling Democrats to lump all three issues as examples of an anti-science mentality. But the lumping is unfair. Unlike the issues of evolution and global warming, in the stem-cell debate nobody is challenging the science involved. The issue is one of moral judgment.

An ad by the Campaign to Defend the Constitution identifies one stem-cell scientist as "a lone voice who breaks with the mainstream medical establishment in his rejection of embryonic stem-cell advancement." In fact, there are many mainstream scientists who oppose the killing of tiny embryos. Many more think that the government shouldn't be financing such morally dicey research in any way. They have a point.


John Leo

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

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