November 28, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

A critique of the Witherspoon stem cell report

Witherspoon InstituteLately I have been critical of an ultra-conservative political think tank-like foundation called the Witherspoon Institute.

They have recently joined the federal lawsuit as friends of the plaintiffs suing to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The Witherspoon Council has just published a 100+ page report on stem cells in the very conservative, somewhat obscure magazine called “New Atlantis“.

Perhaps it will come as a big surprise to you that there are numerous things in the Witherspoon report with which I agree. For example, we concur that hype about stem cells (whether it is about ES cells or adult stem cells) is a bad thing.  A strength of the report is that they also make a notable effort to present balanced arguments on a few issues and kudos to them for that even if many issues are presented in a one sided manner. In fact, there are a number of key problems and weaknesses with their report that need attention too and the very dignified writing style often hides them.

What are the problems?

First, sorely missing from their report is a sense of realism and a consideration of actual living, breathing human beings. In short they have not included in their equation the patients. For example, they write:

…the core agreement among both advocates and critics of embryonic stem cell research is that we have a fundamental obligation to protect and care for human life… 

I wish it were so, but it is not. In reality, many critics of embryonic stem cell research make a habit of leaving living breathing human beings out of their arguments. It is as though they have tunnel vision, focused on embryos more than people. The Witherspoon Council makes this strong statement, but without any factual support.

Second, absent in this report are the perspectives of actual stem cell scientists, leaving their report feeling a bit artificial and removed from the real world of stem cell science. This weakens the impact of the report.

The Witherspoon group are very good at philosophizing and making statements as ethicists, but all within the context of a bubble that excludes arguably two of the most important, authoritative people when it comes to stem cells: the patients and the scientists. Without the participation of these important people, the Witherspoon report feels like more an intellectual exercise than an authoritative, practical document.

Third, the Witherspoon group also has an agenda with this report of defending former President George W. Bush, since most of the Witherspoon members were appointed by Bush to Bush’s Presidential Council on Bioethics. This agenda leads the Witherspoon writers astray because it inserts significant bias in their writing. While certainly President Bush’s actions on stem cells are collectively an important part of the history of embryonic stem cells in America, in my opinion the Witherspoon group places too much importance on it and spends too much time defending Mr. Bush.

Fourth, the Witherspoon Council self-awards itself authority and an air that it is a neutral party “above the fray”, statuses that it has not earned. Having served on President Bush’s Ethics Council as appointees may make the Witherspoon people more knowledgeable about stem cells than the average Joe, but I would argue that having served on a now long defunct council by reason of appointment is not a source of authority.

Fifth, the Witherspoon report seems a product of “group think” and its council does not represent America in its composition. The Witherspoon group in some cases present both sides to arguments, but often they do not and they make assumptions that not everyone agrees with. It is notable that the Witherspoon Council has 14/15 male members (i.e. only 1 woman) and is fairly homogeneous in terms of background. Thus, its report reflects the views of a group that is too narrow and there is certainly “group think” evident in this report.

It is also important to note for context that the  President’s Council on Bioethics has been highly controversial itself and was widely criticized for being completely closed to alternative opinions and for being not diverse enough. It was really an exercise in group think. For example, great scholar and Nobel Laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn, who was reportedly fired from this council for political reasons accused the council of having the sole purpose of supporting Bush’s agenda, and not taking a truly open-minded look at stem cell research.

Wikipedia‘s piece on the Presidential Council contains this interesting entry:

Bioethicist Leslie A. Meltzer accused the Council of wrapping “political and religious agendas in the guise of dignity,” and described them as largely Christian-affiliated neoconservatives; philosophers and political scientists rather than bench scientists. Meltzer said that Council members mischaracterized the positions of their opponents and used invective rather than addressing the merits of the arguments.

Interestingly, this quote from Meltzer about the Presidential Council also rings remarkably true of the Witherspoon Council and their report on stem cells as well. It reads very dignified, but I do not believe their goal is to educate in an unbiased manner and as mentioned above, the report is too far removed from actual scientists, who have important perspectives to share that the Witherspoon report denies by omission.

We have now talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the report, but why did the Witherspoon group even write this report?

One clue comes from the timing of this publication, which is not by chance. Within days of them becoming friends of the plaintiffs in the federal ES cell court case, their report was published.

What does this mean?

Their intended audience for the report at least in part is the 3-judge panel of the appeals court in whose hands the fate of federally funded ES cell research at least temporarily rests.

Make no mistake, the Witherspoon Council’s goal and the point of their report is to make federal funding of ES cell research illegal.

I am happy to report that the Witherspoon folks read my blog! In their report they take an unmistakable swipe at me. They cite an NIH-funded researcher from UC Davis (hey, that’s me!) and this blog as the best representative “particularly notable” example of how the Internet engages in discussion of stem cells.

I’m fine with the fact that they do this in a non-flattering way and in fact I am flattered. You should keep in mind as you make comments on this post that the Witherspoon Council is likely to read this post and the comments.

What did they say about me? I am reference 87 and here is what they said:

The Internet is littered with blog posts and comments from people claiming that opponents of ES cell research want people to “suffer and die.”[87]

[87] There are far too many examples of this sentiment to cite here, but one that is particularly notable appears on the blog of an NIH-funded stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis: “Those who oppose ESC research as unethical are in effect telling millions of patients who might be helped by such technology ‘sorry, you have the wrong disease, go ahead and suffer and die because current medical technology can’t help you!’” From “News Flash: George W. Bush Deserves Credit For iPS Cells?,” Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog, September 12, 2011,

Perhaps my blog post, which was about my astonishment at the truly crazy claim that George W. Bush deserved credit for iPS cells, was a bit over the top, but in part the quote from me was inspired by all my interactions with patients and patient advocates. These patients are real people for whom conventional medicine has almost nothing to offer. For many of them the odds of adult stem cell research helping them are basically zero as well. In short, their best hope, although far from any guarantee, is embryonic stem cell research. It is neither fair nor just to simply ignore these living, breathing human beings.

I’d be quite interested in other opinions about the Witherspoon report so please comment.


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