Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Journalistic Malpractice [Serge]

In my chosen field of work, there is an understanding between my patients and I that assumes that I perform surgery with a basic level of competence. Any time I fail to adhere to that standard of care, I could be considered guilty of malpractice. Maybe it is for this reason that I get quite frustrated with articles such as this one in the Toronto Star from faith and ethics reporter Stuart Laidlaw. Laidlaw makes three significant factual errors in the first half of his article on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.

True care needs also to address the ethical issues surrounding their care – including the research done to arrive at a treatment. For Sullivan, medical decisions cannot, and should not, be made in a moral vacuum. For the Catholic church, embryonic stem-cell research tops the list of concerns.

"The ethical issues arise where the vulnerable are threatened," Sullivan says, referring to the stem cells destroyed in labs.

Strike one. No one that I have ever encountered has a problem with the destruction of individual human stem cells. It is not the stem cells that are vulnerable, but the embryos that the stem cells come from. This is not an insignificant point. I firmly believe that if it becomes technically possible to derive pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos, there would not be the ethical outcry that we have now. It is not destroying the stem cells that are ethically troubling, but the fact that we destroy human organisms to get them. A "faith and ethics" reporter should know this.

He expects such research to get a boost in the coming years as the Bush administration comes to an end, taking with it the White House ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Strike 2. There is no ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The federal government spends millions of dollars funding this research. They merely restrict the research to the embryonic stem cell lines that were created before 2001. In fact, JivinJ reports that the recent "breakthrough" for ESCR took place with a federally funded stem cell line.

Funding for this study came partially from Geron, which hopes to develop medical products to help heart-attack survivors. Other funding came from the federal National Institutes of Health.
Once again, even a modicum of research would have shown that his statement was false. Lastly:

Meanwhile, moratoriums restricting stem-cell research in other countries, such as Germany and Australia, are nearing an end, scientific journals are calling for more stem-cell and other research, and Democratic presidential candidates are letting it be known they support the work.
Strike 3. While not as egregious as the other errors, this one is quite an overstatement, at least in Germany. It is true that a panel in Germany has considered overturning their restriction of ESCR, it is far from a done deal.

However, despite this week's events, the issue is far from decided in Germany and fierce division is anticipated when The German Parliament begins to debate the issue later this year.
Saying that the moratorium is nearing the end is simply sloppy. It may not be so at all. Faith and ethics reporters are supposed to be using facts to support their points, not their crystal balls.

The worst thing about reporting like this is that it is so common. I could point out numerous examples of reporting as bad as this almost every day when articles talk about stem cell research. They get it wrong so many times it is amazing. A reporter's chosen profession compels them to investigate and check on the facts before writing on them. Is it too much to expect them to do their job?


  1. Serge,

    Did you email the author to point these errors out? I try as much as possible to email the reporters to point out their error. Not only might doing so change what they write in the future, but it's also a way for us to speak up in the public square (particularly when the article has a comments section that all can read).


  2. Thanks Jason. I did e-mail him the post and gave him my E-mail address. If he responds, I will post it here with his permission.


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