Accuracy in Media

With Governor James McGreevey’s signature, New Jersey has recently adopted the most radical cloning law in the nation. Though advertised under the innocent-sounding name of “stem cell research,” the law authorizes researchers to create cloned human embryos, implant them into a womb, gestate them for up to nine months, kill them, and sell their body parts.

One sponsor of the bill tellingly referred to it as “not the most significant law we’ll write this session – but this century.” But the full scope of the law will not be apparent to readers of the mainstream press, which has generally portrayed it as a compassionate, common-sense research measure opposed only by Luddites and religious extremists.

Some background: Stem cells, according to the National Institutes of Health, are unspecialized cells that have “the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells,” thus offering the potential to regrow damaged tissue. There are two main types: those found in embryos (embryonic stem cells) and those found in developed tissues and organs (adult stem cells).

The news media, unfortunately, often fail to recognize this distinction. Frequently reporters ignore the existence of adult stem cells or imply that only embryonic stem cells can be used to treat diseases. Many stories use the term “stem cell” as a substitute for “embryonic stem cell,” obscuring a very important difference.

A January 5 Associated Press article, for example, inaccurately states that the recent law made New Jersey “the second state to allow stem cell research.” In truth, as attorney and writer Wesley J. Smith has pointed out, stem cell research was already legal under federal law. A 2001 decision by the Bush administration simply put restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (incidentally, an earlier AP article illogically claimed that this decision “extended the federal reach”).

Journalists have given plenty of attention to the potential medical benefits of embryonic stem cells (one story refers in its first sentence to “new hope for millions of Americans with conditions ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease”), but they have largely neglected to report on successful research involving adult stem cells.

The January 5 AP article, for example, does not mention adult stem cells at all, leaving readers unaware that such cells have successfully been used in medical research for decades – and present great promise for the future.

Smith has noted the media’s tendency to ignore both the drawbacks of embryonic stem cells (they may be rejected by a patient’s immune system and have caused tumors in animal studies) and the recent breakthroughs in adult stem cell research (such as treatments for Parkinson’s disease and pancreatic cancer).

Due to the dearth of media attention to such research, Smith writes, “many Americans are woefully unaware that the best opportunity to obtain regenerative medical treatments in the soonest possible time is most likely with adult stem cell therapies, not therapeutic cloning.”

Therapeutic cloning, Smith reports, is the name given to a proposed procedure in which a patient’s embryonic clone would be developed up to the blastocyst stage, killed, and harvested of its stem cells, which would then be grown in culture and injected into the patient.

Smith notes that while this procedure has never been performed successfully, it is now expressly permitted under New Jersey law.

Indeed, although the New Jersey law is widely reported as “specifically outlawing cloning” (as a New York Times article put it), the text of the law clearly allows for therapeutic cloning and harvesting: “As used in this section, ‘cloning of a human being’ means the replication of a human individual by cultivating a cell with genetic material through the egg, embryo, fetal and newborn stages into a new human individual.” (emphasis added)

In other words, the law allows cloning so long as the clone is killed before completing the “newborn stage.”

Last year four members of the President’s Council on Bioethics wrote to Gov. McGreevey to express their alarm: “The pending legislation expressly authorizes the creation of new human beings by cloning and, perhaps unintentionally, their cultivation from the zygote stage through the newborn stage for the purpose of harvesting what the bills themselves refer to as ‘cadaveric’ fetal tissue.”

Warning that New Jersey would become a “haven for unethical medical practices,” the members of the council went on to describe the bill – now law – as “a virtual invitation to cloning entrepreneurs to conduct in the State of New Jersey what would amount to fetal farming for research, presumably including experimental treatments.” The law, they said, would result in “the moral madness of killing in the cause of healing – with a possible profit motive that would encourage the grisly practice.”

Moreover, Professor Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame Law School has noted that the law allows cloning entrepreneurs to implant a cloned embryo into a woman’s womb with the understanding that she will have an abortion at a specified time (and collect money from the entrepreneurs). But if the woman changes her mind and decides she wants to give birth to the child, any “contract to abort” will be unenforceable.

“Make no mistake about it,” Bradley wrote, “S1909 [now signed into law] puts New Jersey on course to be the first jurisdiction in the world to count cloned babies among its inhabitants.”

If only the news media had told all of this to the people of New Jersey.

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