Monday, August 08, 2005

Hurlbut, Bioethics, and Hypocrisy

Dr. William Hurlbut, a bioethicist, is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) and is staunchly pro-life, (as is Leon Kass, the head of the PCBE.) Some time ago, Dr. Hurlbut had an idea he hopes will provide a way around the controversy regarding embryonic stem cell research (ESCR.) If his idea works, it will be possible to obtain embryonic stem cells (ESCs) without harming embryos.* In and of itself, there is nothing fishy about his having such an idea.

However, when you look at it a little more closely, questions arise. One of the first that comes to mind is, why have I heard about this? Let’s face it – this is only an idea, nothing more. Indeed, in the words of the PCBE itself, in its May 2005 White Paper: Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells, Dr. Hurlbut’s idea is “as yet untested experimentally (even in animals.)” Ordinarily, we don’t hear about research until it is finished, subjected to rigorous peer review and published in a respected scientific journal. Then it hits the papers. Can you imagine what life would be like if we were informed of every idea that was born in the scientific community? There would be no room for any other news.

So the fact that Hurlbut’s idea (along with one other) was announced to the country last winter with significant coverage in at least two major papers – the Boston Globe (11/21/04) and the Washington Post (12/3/04) – and was covered again in June of this year in Wired, not to mention the 184 hits a search on “Dr. William Hurlbut” +alternative yields on Google, begs the question - why? Let’s not forget, not only has zero research actually been done on these ideas, but Dr. Hurlbut is not even a scientist. How on earth could a non-scientist with a mere idea get the kind of coverage generally reserved for huge scientific discoveries in two major media outlets?

And there is more. Since November, Hurlbut has been traipsing around the country looking for support for his idea from religious leaders and others. But…why? Ordinarily, when a scientist has an idea for a research project, she or he writes a grant, secures funding, and does the study. It couldn’t be a question of whether such an experiment would be eligible for federal funding because it would have to be done in animals, first – there is plenty of federal funding available for research on animals. So why doesn’t Hurlbut find an actual scientist to undertake his experiment, secure funding, and get to work?

The only explanation I can come up with is that Hurlbut’s goal is not, as he says, to get this research undertaken – his goal is to publicize the idea and get it onto the internet and into newspapers all over the country; plant a seed in the minds of those who are only listening with half an ear that there is an alternative, that ESCR is really unnecessary, and thereby increase the misinformed base of support for the marginalization or elimination of ESCR.

That would be one goal of Hurlbut's crusade, but it was and is also intended to lay the groundwork for a more overarching goal: to derail the votes in the House and the Senate on HR 810, a bill that would expand federal funding for ESCR. It could not possibly be a coincidence that the PCBE published its White Paper, which announced four ideas, including Hurlbut's, theorizing alternative methods for obtaining ESCs, in the very same month House Majority Leader Tom DeLay finally allowed HR 810 to come to a vote. And because of Hurlbut's crusade, the White Paper has received plenty of advance press, all over the country. This is just the next step in a long series of political moves using inaccurate and misleading information (plenty of information on that subject on my blog) to convince the public that ESCR is unnecessary in an effort to create an atmosphere that would be amenable to retaining, or even expanding, restrictions on it.

The irony is that in choosing to promote research ideas, hypotheses, as its next step, the right is fixing the searchlight full force on the hypocrisy of its own anti-ESCR soundbites, which have been repeated like mantras since 2001.

One of those mantras is “false hopes.” All those irresponsible people, goes the mantra, who are “hyping” ESCR are giving those poor sick folk false hopes by leading them to believe that cures and treatments are right around the corner

But what about Hurlbut, et. al.? When it comes to these totally hypothetical ideas, they can’t be about anything BUT hope. Hope, quite literally, is all there is, because right now there is no research at all to support these hypotheses.

Another, particularly inane, mantra is "there are no guarantees that ESCR will ever yield anything,” First of all, does it even bear saying that there are never any guarantees that any medical research will yield results? And, secondly, Hurlbut and friends' experiments would be no different from any other – i.e., no guarantees – but that is not stopping the right from shouting the “news” from the rooftops. Suddenly, who needs guarantees?

Likewise with “even if ESCR does someday yield results, it won’t be for years and years.” With Hurlbut and company's completely untested ideas, there is virtually no mention of the fact that these hypotheses are even further from fruition (if they ever come to fruition) than your average ESCR.

I don’t see myself as particularly adept at reading between the lines, but, quite honestly, such a talent would be wasted here. Hurlbut’s crusade fairly screams “propaganda,” and the PCBE’s and the right’s support of it puts their hypocrisy on parade.

Fortunately, for whatever reason, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently broke with President Bush and announced his support for expanded federal funding for ESCR. If enough senators follow their career compasses or their consciences now (it matters not to me which it is) we just might end up with a federal policy on ESCR that actually reflects the will of the people.

If not, the right will go on stealing hope, time, and potentially much more, from those who need them most.

This post is also available at Blogger News Network.

*please see below for a short description of Dr. Hurlbut's idea.

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