Ignoring researcher's caveat, WSJ's Henninger claimed stem-cell controversy "[b]asically [...] is over"

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On Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Daniel Henninger discussed the announcement that American and Japanese research teams discovered, in the words of the senior American scientist, a "new way to trick skin cells into acting like embryos" by "reprogram[ming] skin cells into multipurpose stem cells without harming embryos." Henninger said: "Basically, the controversy is over. And I think, in retrospect, we should say something on behalf of, say, [President] George Bush, who vetoed that stem-cell bill." However, the senior American scientist wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the new developments "[f]ar from vindicat[e]" the Bush administration's policy "of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells."

On the December 8 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, host and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot and deputy editorial page editor Daniel Henninger discussed a November 20 announcement that American and Japanese research teams discovered, in the words of the senior American scientist, a "new way to trick skin cells into acting like embryos" by "reprogram[ming] skin cells into multipurpose stem cells without harming embryos." After Gigot asserted that the announcement was a "stem-cell breakthrough we can all agree on," Henninger claimed, "Basically, the controversy is over. And I think in retrospect we should say something on behalf of, say, [President] George Bush, who vetoed that stem-cell bill," referring to Bush's repeated vetoes of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Henninger continued, saying that "science, in its brilliance, came up with a solution. In this case, all's well that ends well -- we hope." However, James A. Thomson, the senior American scientist involved in the stem-cell discovery, wrote in a December 3 Washington Post op-ed with Alan I. Leshner, the executive publisher of the journal Science, that the research is still at "square one" and that scientists are still "uncertain at this early stage whether souped-up skin cells hold the same promise as their embryonic cousins do." Thomson and Leshner added that the new developments "[f]ar from vindicat[e]" the Bush administration's policy "of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells."

From Thomson and Leshner's December 3 op-ed:

A new way to trick skin cells into acting like embryos changes both everything and nothing at all. Being able to reprogram skin cells into multipurpose stem cells without harming embryos launches an exciting new line of research. It's important to remember, though, that we're at square one, uncertain at this early stage whether souped-up skin cells hold the same promise as their embryonic cousins do.

Far from vindicating the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells, recent papers in the journals Science and Cell described a breakthrough achieved despite political restrictions. In fact, work by both the U.S. and Japanese teams that reprogrammed skin cells depended entirely on previous embryonic stem cell research.

Thomson and Leshner further asserted that Bush's policy on embryonic stem-cell research has created a "stigma" that "surely has discouraged some talented young Americans from pursuing stem cell research." After stating that they hoped Congress would overturn Bush's veto on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Thomson and Leshner concluded, "Further delays in pursuing the clearly viable option of embryonic stem cells will result in an irretrievable loss of time, especially if the new approach fails to prove itself."

Additionally, the New York Times editorial board noted in a December 6 post on its blog that in a November 20 teleconference with reporters, Thomson "estimated that the political controversy and the President's restrictions on federal funding have actually set the field back four to five years, mostly because the stigma discouraged scientists from working on embryonic stem cells." In a November 21 article on the new technique, the Times further reported that both Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who conducted related research in Japan, "caution, though, that they still must confirm that the reprogrammed human skin cells really are the same as stem cells they get from embryos." The article further reported that "while those studies are under way, Dr. Thomson and others say, it would be premature to abandon research with stem cells taken from human embryos."

As Media Matters for America has documented, other news outlets and media figures have characterized the new research on stem cells as a victory for the Bush administration without noting Thomson's caveats:

  • The Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote that unnamed "Bush advisers are considering ways to call attention to scientists' announcement, which the White House believes was lost in Thanksgiving week, about discoveries that could lead to the creation of stem cells without embryos -- a vindication, in the view of Bush's aides, of his reservations about approving broader federal funding of embryonic stem cell research." Allen and VandeHei did not identify any of the Bush aides quoted, writing only that the aides are "intimately involved in crafting next year's [White House] strategy," and that they "asked for anonymity to discuss internal planning."
  • On the November 25 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol asserted that the scientific technique, if it performed as claimed, would end the debate over embryonic stem-cell research.
  • In a November 21 New York Times "News Analysis" examining the political significance of the announcement, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote: "The findings have put people on both sides of the stem cell divide on nearly equal political footing." She wrote that Bush "has steadfastly maintained that scientists would come up with an alternative method of developing embryonic stem cells, one that did not involve killing embryos," adding, "[N]ow that scientists in Japan and Wisconsin have apparently achieved what Mr. Bush envisioned, the White House is saying, 'I told you so.' "

From the December 8 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report:

GIGOT: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses." It's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week.

Item one, a stem-cell breakthrough we can all agree on. Dan?

HENNINGER: Yeah, you'll recall, Paul, there has been no more bitterly fought political controversy than that over stem-cell research -- the promises it would provide cures for Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease and such. The problem has been that you had to harvest the stem cells from embryonic cells, creating an ethical firestorm. Well, just recently both Japanese and American researchers have discovered that they can harvest these from adult cells. Basically, the controversy is over. And I think, in retrospect, we should say something on behalf of, say, George Bush, who vetoed that stem-cell bill. They were described as Neanderthal knuckle-draggers. I think the politics here operated in good faith, and that science, in its brilliance, came up with a solution. In this case, all's well that ends well -- we hope.

GIGOT: All right. Good, Dan. Thanks.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Stem Cell Research
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel
Person
Paul Gigot, Daniel Henninger
Show/Publication
Journal Editorial Report
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