Flip, Flop, Flip

The big news this morning from Capitol Hill was Sen. Bill Frist’s announcement that he is breaking with the president to support legislation that lifts limits on stem cell research and increases federal funding for such work. The Senate majority leader — a doctor by trade — said on the Senate floor:

Like transplantation, if we can answer the moral and ethical questions about stem cell research, I believe we will have the opportunity to save many lives and make countless other lives more fulfilling. That’s why we must get our stem cell policy right — scientifically and ethically … While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases. Therefore, I believe the president’s policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding (and thus NIH oversight) and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds.

Boiling this story down to the one or two sentences that cable news requires isn’t easy. To quote the infamous Dude, “It’s a complicated case, Maude. Lotta ins. Lotta outs.”

Let’s check out how CNN Headline News and NBC’s “Today Show” condensed the story this morning:

CNN Headline News:

Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist says he now supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research with some conditions. Just last month he said he would not support a bill … to expand funding for the research. A senior aide tells CNN Senator Frist called the president last night to let him know. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

NBC’s “Today Show”:

Bill Frist is breaking with President Bush over stem cell research. He now supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The president says he’ll veto the proposed legislation.

Now to get into the semantics.

First, the phrase “supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research” is a little too simplistic. The issue here is the limitations on the stem cell lines. Right now scientists can only use federal funds for research on 78 lines of embryonic stem cells, of which under 30 have proven to be usable. Frist now supports expanding the number of lines available for study with federal funds.

Then there’s the issue of Frist’s history on this. As the Washington Post explains, Frist’s views on stem cell research have wavered. Back in the summer of 2001, he called for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, agreeing that there should me some limits, but adding, “This does not mean limiting it to research using stem cells that have already been derived to date.” When President Bush announced his position —limited stem cell research onstem cells that had “already been derived to date” — Frist capitulated and threw his support behind the president’s plan.

When the House bill passed in June of this year, Frist reasserted his position, saying that “I agree with the president’s policy” of limiting stem cell research.

Now he has switched back to his position of 2001 and once again supports expanding the number of lines available for federally funded research.

So, when the media says that Frist “now supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research” it’s not entirely accurate on two counts. One, Frist has voted for limited embryonic stem cell research in the past. Two, Frist now supports expanded research — a position he originally held before he signed on to the president’s limitations.

So, how about this, copy writers?

“After four years, Sen. Frist is breaking with the president to return to his original support for an expansion of federally funded embryonic stem cell research to lines that have not been derived to date.”

It may be laborious to parse, but it’s more accurate.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.