Stem-cell spin

There's a lot of nonsense being spread about stem cells, and you are about to hear a whole lot more. Last week, it became likely that Michigan voters will decide in November whether to get rid of our present policy banning most embryonic stem cell research.

That's because those in favor of such research, who are loosely organized as a group called CureMichigan, turned in what looks like far more signatures than needed to get on the state ballot this fall.

"This is research that we know has a high chance of curing many diseases and saving many lives," said Larry Owen, the campaign chairman. Many scientists think he may be right.

But fundamentalist religious groups think stem cell research is evil and bad — or "deliberately deceptive," in the words of their mouthpiece, David Doyle. They plan to spend a lot of money, most of it supplied by the Michigan Catholic Conference and Right-to-Life of Michigan, to try to get you to vote against such research.

They won't tell you that, of course, nor who is really behind their efforts. Instead, they have an umbrella group MI-CAUSE, a spiffy website, and are gearing up to sell their own spin.

Not that their opponents aren't. Frankly, supporters of both sides have been guilty of distortions on this issue. To be fair, those in favor of embryonic stem cell research sometimes sound something like fanatic converts to some kind of new cult. They've been known to hint that this research will, in almost no time at all, soon enable the most severely crippled people to walk, overcome Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and that it would have gotten Christopher Reeve out of that wheelchair, if he had just hung on.

Everyone would like to believe that. But the truth is that — while there are lots of promising signs that this work has great potential — we have no real idea yet what can actually be gained. Which is, when you come to think of it, exactly why more research is needed.

However, those who are fiercely opposing embryonic stem cell research don't just exaggerate. They flat-out lie. If you turn to the MI-CAUSE website, the first thing you'll see is a charge that state Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale) has "been working in the Michigan Legislature to legalize cloning and to allow unrestricted experimentation on live human embryos." Nothing could be further from the truth; Meisner, in fact, had a bill to strengthen the ban against cloning, but he couldn't get his colleagues to touch it.

That doesn't bother most stem-cell opponents, who seem to think it is mighty fine to lie for Jesus. Most of them seem to be right-wing Roman Catholics, who believe that any fertilized egg is just as much a person as old Joe Ratzinger, their current Pope.

Others are fundamentalist Protestants, who may be a little fuzzy on their theology, but know it is safe to be against science, and knowledge in general and — Zeus forbid — thinking in particular.

The Catholics have to be deeply frustrated. The days when they could just get the pope to toss somebody (e.g., Galileo) in irons for teaching that the world goes around the sun are long gone.

Nor can they just forbid publication of the truth. So they have to work harder at their lies. Here's the opponents of stem cell research's fundamental problem, if you will pardon my pun: They want to persuade you that embryonic stem cell research is baby-killing. After all, they are taken from actual embryos, aren't they? Embryos who will never grow up to be little flower girls and nuns and altar boys and priests.

Yes, that's where stem cells come from, all right. What the opponents won't tell you, however, is this: Not a single one of these embryos would ever become a baby, no matter what.

What they become now, all of them, is sewage. The embryos the scientists want to use for stem cell research are the discards from fertility clinics. When couples want to get pregnant, these clinics make a whole batch of embryos at once. (These aren't even fetuses, but tiny microscopic groups of a handful of cells.) If the sperm and egg donors, aka parents, no longer need them, they are frozen and, after a decent interval, poured down the drain.

That is quite legal, by the way. In fact, you can put them down the sink with coffee grounds and Drano, but it would be illegal to use their cells to try to help cure the diseases that affect living babies.

You can oppose such research if you want to, but you have to face what Andy Meisner calls the "hard cold truth" that no law protects the fertility clinic discards that the anti-stem-cell people care so much about. Nor are they trying to save them.

The issue isn't even about preventing this research. We can't. California is doing it now, as are some other states. What we can do — if we vote against it — is to prevent Michigan from attracting new science and health care facilities and, potentially, good jobs.

But, hey. Why are we worrying? All the right-to-lifers' kids can still go out and get good-paying jobs on the line at Oldsmobile.

Men in Black, Part II: As I have mentioned before, Joel Thurtell was an excellent reporter whom the Detroit Free Press never seemed to use very well in the many years he was working there.

I've met him only once. But since he was liberated — oops — retired from the declining daily, he seems to have really blossomed; his blog ( is one of the best I have seen. Thurtell knows his stuff, and isn't afraid to point out that not only is the emperor nekkid, his thing is trailing limply in the dirt.

Here's an example of Thurtell writing on something everyone knows, but which probably would never be allowed in the oh-so-politically correct Gannett morning paper.

"A minister? A lobbyist? Wait a minute, is this the same person? Can somebody tell me what the hell a minister was doing trying to persuade members of the Detroit City Council to approve a sludge contract?

"This is the Rev. Wendell Anthony, a well-known pastor in Detroit ... how can he be an effective minister or advocate of civil rights if he's playing the very high-powered and partisan game of politics in Detroit. Be a minister, not a huckster."

Thurtell, as far as I can tell, doesn't make a penny off his blog. The newspapers, meanwhile, are being told by their brilliant bosses at corporate headquarters that since they aren't making enough money, they have to further lower the quality of their product.

So if you missed their triumphant announcement of this fact, the "Detroit Media Partnership" is offering a not-very-good buyout to 150 workers at their newspapers. If they don't get enough "volunteers," they are threatening to voluntarily lay them off.

They are also discontinuing all sorts of offerings, like the community news sections, and the one thing in the paper kids liked to read, the Yak.

But I have a good suggestion for management. After they finished further bleeding a product that was already much diminished to start with, they should do what Gannett morals would dictate is the correct and honorable thing: Raise advertising rates again.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]