Hurlburt on Stem Cell: "Moving Forward with Social Consensus"

Yesterday, stem cell researcher John Gearhart, Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, and physician William Hurlburt appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to discuss the latest in the stem cell debate. I recommend listening to the archived audio as the program provides a great deal of context in understanding last week's events and the debate in general. Of interest to my post yesterday, both Gearhart and Weiss say that they think the timing of the skin stem cell studies were nothing more than coincidence.

(In other speculation, over at the Sandwalk blog, one commentator reports that the timing was the product of competition between Cell Stem Cell and Nature, with the latter flagship journal fearing that the inaugural issue of the upstart would deliver a scoop and thus lessen the impact of their forthcoming studies. Just another sign that the publication schedule of journals is not random, but rather often driven by dimensions of "scientific newsworthiness," i.e. what will create the most excitement and interest among subscribers and the news media.)

In the interview, more revealing was Hurlburt's well-honed and focused framing strategy.

Not surprisingly, the member of President Bush's Bioethics Advisory Council asserted his support for research that might use sources of stem cells other than human embryos. Resonating with the "middle way" frame, he repeated at least a dozen times an appeal to collective decision making, bringing together groups and citizens around research like the skin cell studies that might in his words "move forward with social consensus" [frame device].

Hurlburt insists that there is a long standing precedent in Federal law that the government should not fund research that destroys human embryos, citing specifically the 12 year old Dickey Amendment, passed by the conservative Gingrich-led Congress. Given what he claims is a legislative and philosophical tradition, slight majority support in opinion polls does not translate into breaking with precedent or the funding of research that he says "many Americans find offensive."