Wall Street Journal editorial page wrong on Bush's stem cell policy

A May 26 Wall Street Journal editorial falsely claimed that President Bush's August 2001 policy announcement on embryonic stem cell research “forbade funding for research into new [stem cell] lines, which entailed both the creation and destruction of human embryos.” In fact, the creation of human embryos is not necessary to derive new stem cell lines. Bush's policy banned federal funding not only for the creation of stem-cell-producing embryos, but also for the creation of stem cell lines from existing embryos created for, but not used in, in vitro fertilization (IVF). On May 24, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would remove the current ban on such funding. Bush has promised to veto the bill if it passes the Senate.

On August 9, 2001, Bush delineated his position on stem cell research, stating that the government would fund research into existing stem cell lines, but not the creation of new lines from existing embryos:

I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made. ... This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.

Contrary to the Journal's suggestion that generating new stem cell lines involve creating new embryos, a "Stem Cell Fact Sheet" released by the White House explained that embryonic stem cells “are derived from excess embryos created in the course of infertility treatment.”

The legislation passed by the House, which would remove a portion of Bush's ban on federal funding, but the bill explicitly limits research to cells “derived from human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics for the purpose of fertility treatment and were in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking such treatment,” according to the Library of Congress summary.

A 2003 study by the RAND Law and Health Initiative estimated that there are about 400,000 frozen embryos in IVF clinics across the nation, 11,000 of which have been set aside for research purposes.

Interestingly, while the Journal admitted in the same editorial that it did not actually agree with Bush's policy, the editorial board still felt compelled to defend Bush from unnamed “critics” :

For our part, we don't see any great moral difference from doing time-limited research on unused embryos created for in-vitro fertilization, as opposed to letting those in-vitro embryos be destroyed. ... But we're glad Mr. Bush is at least drawing a line somewhere. His critics often sound as if the promise of scientific progress raises no ethical questions and is itself a kind of moral trump card.

In 2003, Michael Tomasky, then a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, conducted a study comparing Journal editorials with editorials in two papers often considered liberal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. He found (as quoted by Slate):

[W]hile the pages are more or less equally partisan when it comes to supporting or opposing a given presidential administration's policy pronouncements, the conservative pages are more partisan -- often far more partisan -- with regard to the intensity with which they criticize the other side. Also ... conservative editorial pages are far less willing to criticize a Republican administration than liberal pages are willing to take issue with a Democratic administration.

Tomasky is currently the executive editor of the progressive magazine The American Prospect.