The strategy was built on quiet deals between scientists’ lobbies, academic lobbies, business lobbies, reporters and especially abortion-choice groups, who were eager to paint their pro-life rivals as opponents of science.
The involvement of the abortion-choice groups effectively eliminated any chance of a legislative compromise, or of balanced media coverage.
“By hyping stem cells, the Democratic guys could accuse [conservatives] of being anti-science,” said Caplan. “Those deals were wink-wink deals, but they were going on,” he said.
The embryo stem-cell strategy was expected by Democratic strategists to boost Democrats’ support among professionals, the medical research sector, elderly voters, female supporters of legal abortion and progressives.
The most brazen pitch came in 2004 when Ron Reagan, the son of President Ronald Reagan, was given a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to push the political strategy.
“I am here tonight to talk about the issue of research into what may be the greatest medical breakthrough in our, or in any, lifetime: The use of embryonic stem cells — cells created using the material of our own bodies — to cure a wide range of fatal and debilitating illnesses,” he declared.
His speech hit poll-tested themes and aimed for sympathy from critical voting blocs.
“How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine. … It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many. … We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.”
The pitch, said Princeton’s George, “was an utter disgrace.”
The Democrats “were the ones that were being anti-science,” said David Prentice, a biochemist and former medical professor who now works for the Family Research Council. “They were trying to use this an an ideological wedge, but the real science … that has born real fruit, has been the adults’ stem cells.”
In fact, the Democrats’ strategy may actually have slowed the development of therapies for sick Americans.
That’s because many Democratic activists, allied university scientists and sympathetic reporters disdained the adult stem cell technology. This opposition allowed foreign surgeons and scientists to pioneer many of the developments that American hospitals could not get federal grants to pursue.
The mass media aligned with the Democrats “because the science community and the patients’ community was on the pro-[embryo stem-cell] side,” said Caplan. “They tended to listen to those voices more than the political [conservatives] and religious [advocates] and few scientists” pushing the rival technologies, he said.
The false media-magnified hopes were especially poignant among the desperate patients recruited by scientists’ groups to serve as heart-tugging lobbyists and media interviewees.
“Elite opinion in this country is socially liberal,” said George. “Most editors, reporters and media commentators are drawn from the elite sector of the culture… [and] favor candidates who share their values,” he said. “That’s not really surprising, given human nature.”
Many scientists also played along, partly because they don’t like regulation of their trade, but also because they were eager to make deals with Democrats, with Geron and with the drug companies.
As part of the political campaign, several states governed by Democrats funded scientists studying embryo research. California allocated $3 billion over 10 years, and New York adopted legislation designed to shield academics and companies that created and grew embryo-stage humans for lucrative lab testing of novel pharmaceutical compounds.
The scientists “didn’t level with the public, particularly about the obstacles to therapeutic uses” of Geron’s technology, said George. “Now those who exaggerated, or failed to set the record straight when others exaggerated, look dishonest,” he said.
“They are certainly less likely to be believed in the future.”