by Gail Quinn
July 6, 2001
Not long ago we learned the hard way that words are not always what they seem. "I never had a sexual relationship with that woman. ..." "It all depends on what "is" is."
We pride ourselves on making our own decisions. Don't tell me what to think; just give me the facts please. The sad thing is that if something is stated publicly and repeatedly, it is often accepted as fact whether it is or not. If I read it in Newsweek, saw it on Nightline or heard a public statement by a teachers' union, it must be true. But as words are not always what they seem, the same is true of reports, polls and public statements. On perpetual "information-overload", we're almost incapable of sorting fact from rubble.
A few examples. Whether the federal government should fund research using stem cells from human embryos is being hotly debated. Fact: obtaining such cells for research requires destroying the embryo. Fact: embryonic stem cell research has not helped a single human patient. Fact: every poll indicates that when people know the research involves destroying a live human embryo, a strong majority opposes it. Fact: adult stem cells have several advantages over embryonic on practical grounds, and have already helped hundreds of thousands of patients.
Yet these facts didn't deter Newsweek from basing its July cover story on the statements of those who support government funding of the research. Arguments against such funding are given short shift (just a couple of words). A second Newsweek piece informs readers that "By a 3-1 margin" the public favors moving ahead with embryonic stem cell research. The writers didn't say their data came from polls that misrepresented key facts and didn't tell people the research involves destroying live human embryos.
Talking heads take to the airwaves to address the issue; they say that embryonic stem cell research holds the key to eradicating human diseases, insist that embryonic human life somehow isn't human if created in a laboratory, and tell viewers that the majority of Americans support such research. Their statements go virtually unchallenged. We listen and we absorb.
Another example. The president of the National Education Association (NEA) recently said that "some critics want the public schools to be an agent of moral doctrine, condemning children and adults when they are not in accord with biblical precepts. We [NEA] believe it is impossible to create a safe haven for children--physically and emotionally secure--while condemning their beliefs." The second sentence sounds about right--but where did it come from? Is there a campaign afoot to discriminate against kids in the third grade for their religious beliefs or cultural customs?
No. NEA's leadership was trying to build support for a Resolution calling for "accurate portrayal of the roles and contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people" and "coordination" with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Based on what? Do first graders, or tenth graders for that matter, need bisexual role models to emulate? NEA tabled the Resolution to study its implications. But rather than see the social agenda involved, many have absorbed a message: school children don't feel safe . . ..and whatever is needed to make them feel safe must be good. This, of course, ignores another question: wouldn't such a campaign undermine the beliefs of children raised to uphold traditional Christian teachings on sexuality? Why would the NEA want them not feel safe?
Often the nice-sounding rhetoric becomes a soft drum-beat, and busy people (which is most of us) stop hearing what is actually being said.
Such a modus operandi has consequences. On one hand, the President of the United States is being pummeled by actors, Senators, Cabinet members and various organizations to fund research based on the destruction of live human embryos. Does he understand that the "facts" being presented to him to support such destructive research are not facts but spin? And if NEA ultimately passes its Resolution, school children may be given less time for reading and science and more for learning about the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people--and maybe about the supposed intolerance of their own churches?
Do we have to learn the hard way all over again?
Gail Quinn is executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.