Swept Away

    Each November, during what the television industry calls a "sweeps period," networks put on shows they believe will attract the most viewers. One example is NBC's ER. All this month, the show is trumpeting guest appearances by film star Don Cheadle. But the people watching ER are being treated to more than an increase in star power. They're also on the receiving end of some very carefully crafted propaganda. Cheadle plays Paul Nathan, a surgical resident. Shortly after he begins work at the hospital, we see Nathan's hands shaking uncontrollably. That's when we learn that Nathan has Parkinson's disease. And then in a later episode, titled "One Can Only Hope," a young woman is brought into the emergency room suffering from a terminal illness -- one that will put her through terrible agony before killing her. The young woman signs a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. But later, after speaking with Nathan, she changes her mind. For now, at least, she's not ready to give up hope. Why not? Because Nathan convinced her that a cure for her condition, like a cure for his Parkinson's, may be just around the corner. And the source of that cure is to be found in -- you guessed it -- human embryonic stem cells. As he tells the chief resident, the only thing standing in the way of these potential cures is "politics." And what he means, of course, is pro-life opposition to embryonic stem-cell research. His supervisor upbraids him -- not out of moral concerns, mind you -- but for raising false hopes. In other words, the problem with embryonic stem-cell research isn't that it takes a human life, but that it may not produce cures fast enough. This is far from the first time ER has taken sides in the pro-life debate. And pro-lifers haven't been treated kindly during the show's nine-year run. While this bit of prime-time propaganda is infuriating, it also contains a lesson for Christians: The struggle to protect innocent human life, and promote other biblical standards, is being fought on many fronts -- in schools, in legislatures, and, yes, in popular culture. And the impact is huge. In ER, tens of millions of Americans get a completely one-sided and inaccurate presentation of the embryonic stem-cell issue. They saw two sympathetic characters suffering from diseases that -- the viewers were told -- could be cured if only pro-lifers got out of the way. And I have no doubt that many of those millions of viewers were influenced. What can we do about this? In the long-term, Christians must become as adept at using the media as our opponents are. There's no substitute for telling stories that communicate Christian truth in ways that don't leave people feeling as if they have been preached to. In the short-term, Christians need to be fully informed on the issues surrounding embryonic stem-cell research. The writers and producers of ER are wrong about stem cells, and we need to let our neighbors know what the facts are. Contact us here at BreakPoint (1-800-995-8777), or visit our Website ( for information that can help you set the record straight with your neighbors. If Christians aren't prepared to respond to prime-time distortion, then it would be the truth that gets swept away in TV "sweeps." For further reading and information: Lynn Elber, "'Headline Dramas' Offer Realism," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 13 November 2002. David Stevens, M.D., "Stem Cells -- Potential and Problems," Council for Biotechnology Policy, 27 September 2002. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Bioengagement: Making a Christian Difference through Bioethics Today (Eerdmans, 2000). Charles Donovan, "Attack of the Conscience? Hollywood and the Genetic Revolution," Council for Biotechnology, 10 September 2002. The Council for Biotechnology Policy provides a FREE monthly "Biotech Policy Update," that includes news, commentary, and research on bioethics and biotechnology. To receive it, send an e-mail with "subscribe" in the subject line to Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press, 2001).


Chuck Colson


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