Writers note:Submitted to the Illinois Eighth District Democrats and Independents organization newsletter
I remember watching the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon at my grandmother's house and seeing the part of the show when Jerry, between prat falls and trying desperately to be taken seriously, wheeled, hobbled, and dragged out the kids with MD. They were all dressed in their Sunday best and struggling to place smiles on their faces. Jerry would get serious at that moment and say "and folks, this is what all the hard work, sweat, tears, and money is all about", the orchestra would punctuate this touching scene with a dramatic brass blast to underscore the urgency of the point. Even then, a little kid with his finger square up his nose and face covered in chocolate, I felt ill at ease with the spectacle of kids my age, obviously embarrassed and suffering, being exploited for something...even a worthwhile cause.
I also recall, as I squirmed in my seat, seeing the tote board light up as soon as those kids made their way on stage. Millions of dollars were called in at that very moment when people saw with their own eyes who was to benefit and what the money was for: so a ten year old girl could walk without crutches or a six year old boy could get out of his wheelchair. In retrospect, those kids weren't exploited at all...they were active participants in securing a cure and a better future for themselves and the other kids with this horrible disease.
Horrible disease. Suffering. Pain. Hopelessness. Death. We are truly fragile beings.
We are making great strides to not only provide treatments, but cures. When I say "we", I mean humanity. I wish I could mean we Americans. Unfortunately, I can't. I can't because the Bush administration decided experimentation on new human embryonic stem cells lines (the cells that have the potential to develop into any organ) are off limits. Why you ask? President Bush offers platitudes about the sanctity of life and the reluctance to destroy the smallest of human lives to preserve those already born. Then he giggles, snorts, and smirks.
Beyond satisfying the demands of the religious right with such rhetoric, is there an ulterior motive for putting the breaks on stem cell research expansion? A major GOP donor group stands to lose a great deal from stem cell derived therapies: the pharmaceutical industry. You see, if stem cell research might someday rid the planet of diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and AIDS by creating patient-specific treatments, then there isn't much use for the tens of billions of dollars worth of maintenance drugs Americans consume every year. This celebration of the Culture of Life, a tenuous argument made by Bush at the outset (with the body count of US soldiers and Iraqis rising daily, grinding unemployment, and increased environment degradation), may very well be the continuing saga of big money influence and cronyism at everyone else's expense.
Are there ethical issues with harvesting human embryos for stem cells? Most definitely. We need to address those issues with rules and guidelines that do not commoditize human tissues, that do place proper scientific rigor/standards for obtaining stem cells (donations of to be discarded embryos) and experimenting with embryos (proper clinical oversight and review). These guidelines also need to be set to paper, not stone, subject to modification and revision as warranted, looking to scientists, ethicists, and religious leaders to provide input.
Perusing a common sense approach to this issue comes hard to an administration (and political party) subject to the extremes of anti-science fundamentalism. Stem cell research is an element of a larger cultural battle against science and scientific inquiry waged by the present leaders of the GOP. From global warming to evolution to stem cells (heck, even under funding "No Child Left Behind"), the Republicans prove daily their hostility toward physics, biology, and chemistry (unless the chemistry will point to new sources of oil).
The missile gap of the 1950's is once again rearing its ugly head. This time, it isn't a beeping metal sphere or an orbital dog-killing machine sent up by the Rooskies that is the cause for concern. No. Our lagging behind the rest of the world is being compelled by the fringes of a particular political party and their inability to distinguish between the "how" of creation (evolution), and the "why" of creation (the divine); to follow our biblical mandate for environmental stewardship (addressing global warming); and acknowledge that actuality (human beings) trumps potentiality (left over, to be discarded embryos).
At the heart of the matter, people are suffering. Their circumstances transcend race, class, gender, orientation, and politics. Everyone is either directly or indirectly affected by some dastardly affliction that strikes, cripples, poisons, or destroys. Stem cell research is a means by which that suffering can be alleviated or even eliminated.
It is time to march across that stage, with pained smiles and our Sunday best, broadcasting to the country what a stem cell could do. This is Mary. She has a rare kidney disorder. She loves cartoons and playing the piano. Stem cell research could give Mary a fighting chance to see her junior prom. Otherwise, she won't see her tenth birthday. This is Frank. Frank has early stage Alzheimer's disease. He is a little forgetful now, but three years from know he won't remember his children's faces. Five years from now, he won't remember his own name. Stem cell research could lead to treatments to regenerate neurons in the damaged areas of Frank's brain. Without treatment, Frank's long goodbye will be his death sentence. This is Candice. A drunk driver hit Candice when she was 19. She was a dancer. Now, she's confined to a wheelchair and requires a respirator. Stem cells could repair her snapped spinal cord and she could dance again. As things are now, Candice will be lucky to avoid pneumonia and live to see 30.
All of these poor souls represent the millions of people in this country and throughout the world, already born, who need our help and support. Instead of a tote board, light up the phones of Congress. Sound the trumpets...the clarion call.