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,https://www.ipscell.com/2011/09/news-flash-george-w-bush-deserves-credit-for-ips-cells/.

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.


16 thoughts on “A critique of the Witherspoon stem cell report”

  1. To PWS: Where exactly are you going to get 40,000 wombs to take the left over blastocysts to the embryonic stage? Answer is you’re not. But according to your narrow view and bizarre Tea Party logic, the moral thing is to do is to toss the blastocysts in to a bio hazard bag destined for the incinerator. How exactly does that honor life? Not to mention the fact that you have absolutely no business or legal rights in the matter.

    The moral thing for you to do personally is just refuse medicine or medical treatment based on the origin of the research. But here’s the kicker – If you’re up to date on your inoculations it’s just a little to late for you to do that. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and ask Dr. Deisher (XXXX plaintiff in the case) who wants to spend millions of taxpayer dollars re-inventing vaccines for rubella and chicken pox because she just doesn’t like the embryonic research that was used to create it in the first place.

    Gee, wonder why the NIH told her to take a hike, not that she has any vested financial interest or gain to be had by pushing the self serving agenda and absurd case clogging up the legal system in an obvious attempt to disrupt valid reseach funding. What was that you were saying about morals….???

    XXXX Note comment edited

    1. Mary, wow. I have never favored (indeed, I have strongly opposed) tossing human embryos into a biohazard bag destined for the incinerator. I’m not aware of any opponent of embryonic stem cell research who favors such a thing. I hope in the future you will rely less on straw men and ad hominem attacks and instead engage the issue thoughtfully and fairly.

      1. One more time – it’s a blastocyst, not an embryo. No womb, no embryo. And tossing the blastocyst in the incinerator is exactly what you and your ilk are proposing.
        Why is it the opposition always resorts to crying foul when presented with facts? Because they lack the capacity to process them, then whip out the straw man/ ad hominem accusations as if that was fact. The reality is it’s their distorted opinion and this is what they consistently base any debate upon, rendering it useless.

        1. Presumably, then, you disagree with the term “embryonic stem cell,” since, on your view, such cells are not derived from embryos. The National Institutes of Health says you are mistaken (see definitions of embryo and blastocyst at http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/glossary.asp). In any case, whatever label we choose to use is not the point.

          With regard to the discarding of embryos (or blastocysts), you weirdly continue to say that my position is contrary to what I’ve told you it is. You are, without doubt, not someone who is capable of having a reasonable conversation on this issue, so I wish you well.

          1. No, that is exactly the point. Words matter. And for decades the scientific community has allowed (giving the opposition heart string ammo) antiquated cellular description to identify inaccurately, in a broad brush stroke, what the blastocystic research focus is in this time frame. So in order to stop being disingenuous, and bring the Dickey Wicker amendment to a legitimate halt, inflammatory terminology should cease and desist. After all, most of the constituent population have read “What to expect when you’re expecting” over the last 15 years and were bright enough to absorb 7th grade health class. Reaching out with a refresher on factual scientific basics is the best way to be genuine and to educate.

          2. PWS,

            I have been following this blog with great interest, however as a non native english speaker I hope you will bear my poor writing…

            I would like to understand what is your opinion on left over embryos (blastocyst stage) after IVF is performed? Currently these left over embryos are either discarded as waste, slowly left to die in liquid nitrogen, or used to produce ESC lines which may lead to life saving cure. Stopping ESC research is not going to save even one of these embryos, unless you make IVF forbidden in this country. Is that your objective?

  2. You write that opponents of embryonic stem cell research “have not included in their equation the patients.” But that is clearly false. For if the opponents are correct about (1) the scientific fact that human embryos are living human organisms (human beings), members of our species at the embryonic stage of development, and (2) the moral position that all human beings, at all stages and in all conditions, deserve equal fundamental moral respect and protection, then killing embryonic human beings for the possible benefit of other human beings is no more justified than killing a 5-year-old so that another can survive with his organs. The fact that such actions are not ethical options does not diminish the obligation to help the people in need. (On the contrary, the same principle of respect for persons that precludes killing 5-year-olds also grounds our obligations to care for patients.) To dismissively say that opponents of embryonic research “ignore” patients is plainly mistaken and completely unfair. To refute their position, you must show that they are mistaken about the moral status of human embryos.

    1. The same Republican party (members of which dominate the Witherspoon council) also has cut funding for women and children (including your hypothetical 5 year old) for several decades now. These funding cuts reduce poor people’s ability to get food and get health care, two very important things affecting quality of life of actual people. I believe such policies have undoubtedly led to the deaths of countless actual people.

      Why don’t the Witherspoons and their ilk not only defend 1-celled embryos, but also care about poor and very sick people? If they did, I’d have a lot more respect for them and believe that their core belief was defending “life”. But that never happens.

      1. You have said nothing to show that the position of opponents of embryonic stem cell research is mistaken. Instead, you have speculated about the other political views of the members of the Witherspoon Council and, based on your speculation and your understanding of Republican policies, accused them of inconsistency — a charge that, even if true, is irrelevant to the question of the ethics of embryonic research, which is the topic I thought we were discussing. Your approach is ad hominem tu quoque.

        1. The ethics of ES cell research is not something that we are likely to agree upon so I’m not very interested in continuing to argue with you.

          In addition, America is fairly evenly split on this issue as well with majorities possible to find in either direction (as the Witherspoon report points out) depending on the nature of the poll. There are also very diverse opinions on this issue around the world as well depending on one’s ethnicity, religious background, country of origin, etc.

          Are you able to say that good people can disagree about this issue?

          1. Absolutely. Good people can disagree. I hope you truly believe that as well, and that we can treat each other with respect, and not be quick to assume the worst of those with whom we disagree (e.g., claiming that they don’t “care about poor and very sick people”).

            1. Good people, as I define them, don’t bring disecting 5yr old children in to the conversation as a talking point.

              1. I used an example to clarify the moral logic of the position held by opponents of ESCR. I explained a particular position. To say that that explanation is inconsistent with being a “good person” is just to say that anyone who holds the position I explained is not a good person. You are free to show that that position is mistaken, but I wish you would not attack the character of those with whom you disagree.

  3. “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.”
    Indeed, much like the population of a church rectory at the very least.

    If any of the 3 judge panel is a parent, this puff piece should remind them of children sitting at the table demanding candy for dinner, void of the ability to understand the stomach ache and cavities that will inevitably follow. Those same children will then refuse to use the toothpaste and medicine that science has given them because of their inability to comprehend science at all.

    What you will hear however is “I don’t like it, I don’t want to.” which at the end of the day is exactly what’s wrapped up in this self absorbed, narcissistic 52 page pdf from the spooners.

  4. Perhaps the simplest refutation of the Witherspoon’s attempt to appear non-partisan is to ask: how many scientific groups agree with them?

    They hope to eliminate federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

    Congress’s twice-passed (and twice vetoed by President G.W. Bush) Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which favored supporting ESC research, was supported by more than 500 patient, educational, scientific and medical groups.

    It was opposed by 17 groups– all religious or ideological.

    The Witherspoon Council adds one more group to the opposition.


    Don C. Reed

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