All the News That’s Fit to Forget
Why you’re not hearing much about embryonic stem cells these days.
Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 •


For years, the media touted the promise of embryonic stem cells. Year after year, Geron Corporation announced that its embryonic stem cell treatment for acute spinal cord injury would receive FDA approval “next year” for human testing. And year after year, the media dutifully informed readers and viewers that cures were imminent. When the FDA finally did approve a tiny human trial for 10 patients in January 2009, the news exploded around the world. This was it: The era of embryonic stem cell therapy had arrived!

Not exactly. Last week, Geron issued a terse statement announcing it was not only canceling the study, but abandoning the embryonic stem cell field altogether for financial reasons.

You would think Geron’s failure would be very big news. Instead, it turns out that the mainstream media pay attention only when embryonic stem cell research seems to be succeeding—so far, almost exclusively in animal studies. When, as here, it crashes and burns, it is scarcely news at all.

Indeed, with the laudable exception of the Washington Post—which outshines its competitors in reporting on biotechnology, as when it debunked the widely reported and groundless assertion that embryonic stem cell research could have cured Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease—most of the same news outlets that gave Geron star treatment when it was heralding supposed breakthroughs provided only muted coverage of the company’s retreat into producing anti-cancer drugs.

The Los Angeles Times may be the most egregious offender. A chronic booster of Geron’s embryonic stem cell research, it reported the FDA’s approval of a human trial on January 24, 2009, in a story that began, “Ushering in a new era in medicine .  .  . ” The paper stayed on the story. In October 2010, it reported that the first patient had received an injection, then a few days later it ran a feature about the study under the headline “Hope for Spinal Cord Patients.” During the same period, however, the paper did not report the encouraging results of early human trials of treatments for spinal cord injury developed using adult stem cells.

Then last May, the Times celebrated the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s $25 million loan to support Geron’s study, noting that the company’s stem cell product had performed as hoped in rat -studies. Yet the day after Geron’s embryonic stem cell research unit was laid off, the Times couldn’t find the space to print the story, though the following day a blog entry ran on the Times website.

Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle, which had given front-page exposure to a local company when Geron’s trial got underway, reported the failure of that trial in a small report on the back page of the business section. The New York Times, always quick to applaud embryonic stem cell research, placed a small story at the bottom of page two of the business section. Other outlets carried muted reports, many focusing either on the business consequences for Geron and its stock price, or on the two other human embryonic stem cell trials currently underway, for eye conditions, run by Advanced Cell Technology.

No one should be surprised by the double standard. The media have always been in the tank for embryonic stem cell research, often breathlessly reporting hype and spin from company PR spokesmen as if it were hard news. This approach sprang largely from the media’s antipathy for the pro-life movement, the most prominent opponent of research requiring the destruction of human embryos. Then there was the anti-George W. Bush prism through which science journalists and other reporters usually analyzed the issue. For nearly Bush’s entire presidency, the media used people’s yearning for cures as a hammer to pound the president for his decision to limit federal research funding to projects using stem cell lines already in existence and therefore not requiring the new destruction of human embryos. Rarely noted in all the criticism: During the Bush years, the NIH spent more than $600 million on human embryonic stem cell research.

Making matters worse, even though Bush is off the national stage, most media continue to ignore the parade of advances demonstrated in human trials of treatments relying on adult stem cells. On the very day that Geron packed its bags, for instance, the news broke of a hopeful adult stem cell treatment for heart disease. It was a big story in the United Kingdom: The headline in the Telegraph called it the “Biggest Breakthrough in Treating Heart Attacks for a Generation.” The story noted:

In the trial, cardiac stem cells were used to repair the severely damaged hearts of 16 patients. It was the first time this had ever been done in humans. After one year, the ejection fraction or “pumping efficiency” of the hearts of eight patients had improved by more than 12 percent. All patients whose progress was followed underwent some level of recovery. .  .  . Although this was an early stage trial and larger studies are needed, scientists believe the promise it shows has huge implications.

How did the New York Times report this story? It didn’t. The L.A. Times? A blog entry. USA Today? Nada. San Francisco Chronicle? At least it was in the paper—on page A16, under the hardly descriptive headline “Regimen Shown To Aid Heart Patients.” And so it goes.

Imagine if a human trial using embryonic stem cells had shown improvement to damaged human hearts. You can just see the banner headline in the New York Times and the breathless announcements on the network news. The thought experiment makes blatantly obvious the malpractice that plagues reporting in this field—which is doubly regrettable, since not only are editors and reporters undermining the media’s already tarnished reputation for objectivity, but many suffering people and their families still have not heard the hopeful news generated by the ethical exploration of regenerative medicine.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, a legal consultant for the Patients Rights Council, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in Abortion, EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS, FETAL STEM CELLS. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. revfrjpatrickserna says:

    My first time to participate in one of the Washington D.C. March for Life demonstrations was back in 2001. I was amazed and shocked at the thousands upon thousands of people who were there! I was “certain” that every major media organization out there would put this massive March for Life out there on t.v.’s around the world, radios, the internet… but No. What a punch to the gut! This was my first time to see such blatant disregard for truth as well as all that is good and holy. Our nation’s capitol was stormed by pro lifers… it was a peaceful and prayerful event, thousands upon thousands were there. What did the media show? They showed pro death people who were demonstrating against us…. one little drop in the bucket was represented by these pro abortion people, the ocean of pro lifers were mainly ignored by the liberal media. Thank God for alternative news sources nowadays. The media is a powerful tool indeed, would that the forces of light would have more influence over this tool.

    Fr. Patrick

  2. Ignatius Martinus says:

    When millions of people come together in common cause to protest against something, it is often a good bet that that “something” is an evil something, is wrong, is possibly a thing that is inherently evil. For instance, has there not been a mass outcry against nuclear weapons in recent decades? I do believe that the Church condemns such things as evil and immoral, even if in the past it was conditionally acceptable (during the Cold War, perhaps?). But, just because myriads of persons cry out against something doesn’t meant that the “something” is wrong. Take for instance the “Occupy” movement of late. But at the very least, the powers that be should listen to the argument of the masses and to the reason why they have come together, why they have gathered and rallied as a single voice.

    What we have with the issue of embryonic stem cell research is this: the powers that be, and the companies which hatefuly use and exploit human embryos, have ignored the voice of the masses crying out that “this is wrong”. They have not LISTENED to the argument of pro-life advocates, for if they had, I truly believe that they would have turned and been converted. Perhaps they have heard our arguments, but if this is granted, then they have not listened to such arguments with their hearts. They have used, I fear, only their unaided intellects, untouched by the light of grace. Let’s pray that they will listen to what we have to say to them, with their hearts as well as their minds, and with the grace that comes from God alone.

  3. Curt Stoller says:

    It is terrible the way the liberal news media tries to conceal the truth. Journalists should be those dedicated to the laws of truth. When they are not, they become propagandists like Joseph Goebbels.Do you think my use of the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda is extreme and out of place here? The liberal news media here spins the news the hides the truth of the Holocaust of abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. I’m talking about millions of murders.

    Science becomes great when it is humble enough to recognize the submit in obedience to the laws of nature. Wilbur and Orville Wright succeeding with their flying machine because they learned the laws of nature as they apply to aerodynamics; the laws of aerodynamic lift and drag, air pressure and gravity. That is why they succeeded over others. Humility and obedience in the face of the laws of nature gives us air travel. God allows man to master the things of nature when man is humble and obedient to the laws of nature. But what becomes of man when he is not humble and obedient to the natural law? Genocide. Infanticide. Obedience to the laws of nature gives us airliners. Disobedience to the natural law gives us airliners flown into buildings. And now man is using the technology he derived from obedience to God’s laws of nature to turn himself into a moral monster who uses that same technology to violate the natural law and do the work of the devil himself. And the news media when it disobeys the laws of the truth aides and abets human immorality.

    The great achievements of technology disprove better than anything, that Calvin was wrong about the “total” depravity of man after Original Sin. But abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research also disprove Pelagius and all his modern followers and spin doctors . Man without grace cannot save himself. Man without a consciousness of sin cannot learn the moral law. In this we are worse than the ancient pagans. They did not have the benefit of 2000+ years of Christian tradition. The moral law is as valid as the laws of nature and more important. More important.

    There is an expression in Roman Catholic theology called the “hierarchy of truths.” The expression was first used during Vatican II and comes from Karl Rahner. It has been abused to justify all kinds of stupid things. But what it means is that certain Catholic truths are central and that all the other truths are connected to these. I wish the American Catholic Bishops would remember that there is also a “hierarchy of moral truths” and that abortion is not just an evil next to other social evils. Abortion is a great, great evil which the Shepherds of the America Catholic Church should not downplay. During the Third Reich, many German Bishops tried to appease Adolf Hitler, some for very noble purposes perhaps, but it was a fatal mistake. The Holy Father is very clear in the importance of anti-abortion legislation. I wish the American Catholic Bishops could be as forceful as the Holy Father.

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