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Tuesday, November 09, 2004  

Health: Embryonic stem cell research gets shot in arm

Looking for a bright spot in regard to Nov. 2? There are a few. One of them is a reason for renewed hope in regard to persons with disabilities. The research path that many researchers see as promising in curing or at least treating ailments such as Parkinson's disease, Altzheimer's and spinal cord injury, embryonic stem cell research, took a giant step forward a week ago. How is that, since George W. Bush, who opposes research on embryonic stem cells, was elected president? California has decided to make an end run around Bush's executive order banning most Americans from using embryonic stem cells in their research. Proposition 71 was approved by nearly 60 percent of the voters.

The Boston Globe reports.

WASHINGTON -- In a campaign that played out like a red state/blue state version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the issue of embryonic stem-cell research was one of many nails poured into the blue-state blunderbuss and fired across the Mason-Dixon line.

It may have been the only one that hit its target. The biggest McCoy of all, California, voted to authorize spending up to $3 billion over 10 years on stem-cell research -- a plan intended as a direct assault on President Bush's strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research and, by extension, on the politics of religious values that underlay the Bush campaign.

. . .The California stem-cell referendum was extraordinary in many respects. It put a state government in the business of medical research, taking on a job that normally falls to the federal government and private sector. And while many state referendums seem more symbolic than real -- a chance for citizens to cast a meaningless protest vote -- this one delivered big money. The $3 billion is, by some measures, more than John F. Kerry promised in his plan to ramp up stem-cell research.

Bush refused to support embryonic stem cell research in 2001. His executive order bars American scientists receiving government funds from using the cells in their work. There is a tiny caveat allowing a score of preexisting ESC lines to be used. However, that is woefully insufficient. Nor will adult stem cells substitute for ESCs. They are limited in use because they are specialized in regard to the kinds of organs they are compatible with. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are undifferentiated. Theoretically, any part of the body can be treated using them.

Bush's opposition is, of course, rooted in his support from the anti-abortion movement. Pro-life advocates contend that life begins at conception. So, the fetuses from which embryonic cells are initially taken are people from their perspective. Actually, the barely developed embryos are left-overs from in vitro fertilization that would be discarded as medical waste. Without government funding, American research into uses of embryonic stem cells has crept along at a snail's pace. The innovation in California means that incubators for ESC research will exist in at least one state.

A pro-life advocate is incensed that Proposition 71 is now the law.

Human embryonic stem cell research is always immoral and unethical, said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League in Stafford, Va.

"With the passage of this deadly initiative, California is poised to become the world's largest killing place," Brown said. "We urge all Californians who respect the dignity of every human being's life to speak out against and begin immediate steps to overturn this measure, which endorses the wholesale killing of the youngest members of the human family."

Actress and activist Dana Reeve, who lost her husband, actor Christopher Reeve, (pictured) to complications from spinal cord injury recently, disagrees. She believes embryonic stem cell research offers hope for ameliorating the problems of people with SCI and other debilitating diseases. Soon after her bereavement, Ms. Reeve joined Kerry on the campaign trail to accentuate his support for ESC research.

Reeve's widow, Dana, said her family has been grieving privately since her husband died Oct. 10. "My inclination would be to remain private for a good long while," she said. "But I came here today in support of John Kerry because this is so important. This is what Chris wanted."

Reeve had lived as a paraplegic since a riding accident in 1995. He had become an advocate for medical research and believed studying embryonic stem cells might unlock lifesaving cures and treatments, Dana Reeve said.

"His heart was full of hope, and he imagined living in a world where politics would never get in the way of hope," she said.

The passage of the pro-ESC measure in California has implications beyond science. The approval of research on embryonic stem cells casts the issue of what it means to be pro-life in new terms. The Right, as exemplified by Bush, believes the 'lives' in need of protection are those of embryos. The more moderate, including some Republicans, are expanding the meaning of being pro-life to include saving or improving the lives of those afflicted by incurable diseases and injuries. With the anti-abortion movement likely to try to extend its triumph in the election to include new restrictions on abortion, the expansion of what people think about when they hear the term 'pro-life' could be significant. It opens the door to a more intelligent and nuanced discussion of quality of life as a component of being pro-life.

Reasonably related

Learn more about stem cells at PBS.

6:58 PM