Politics & Policy

A Stem-Cell Defection

A congressman educates.

Carl Kallsen of Fort Wayne, Indiana, has two granddaughters with Type I diabetes: Kendall, 6, and Kelsea, 13. After they were diagnosed, he got involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In the campaign for expanded federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, few organizations have been more active in public than the JDRF. Earlier this year, Kallsen told the JDRF that he was taking his family to Washington, D.C. The family wanted to meet with their congressman, Republican representative Mark Souder, an opponent of the funding. The JDRF set up the meeting, and the family, armed with the information the organization had provided them, went to Souder’s office on June 15.

The meeting with Souder did not go exactly as planned. They didn’t persuade Souder to support the funding. Instead, he persuaded them to oppose it.

“Kelsea…made the presentation to request federal funding for the research,” recalls Kallsen. “She made the presentation and was asking for him to consider making an appeal to the House for more federal funding. She gave her story, told what it was like to be a diabetic, what it meant to her and the family: the trials and nuances, having to stay awake at night and be sure you’re okay.”

Many congressmen have heard similar presentations, and they have been pretty effective in getting several conservatives to back expanded funding for embryo research. Congressional perceptions of public opinion have of course played a role in building support for the funding on Capitol Hill. But another important factor has been the discomfort that most congressmen feel when people in distress cry in their offices. Rep. Souder handled the situation, however, a bit differently than most congressmen.

Souder was “very, very gracious,” says Kallsen. But he said that he supported adult-stem-cell research, not research that killed human embryos. The fact that embryonic-stem-cell research involved destroying human embryos came as news to Kallsen and his family. “Basically, it was a learning experience for us. We were not well informed about all of the issues. We’re all pro-life and…we had not done enough research on our own to understand that if we were promoting embryonic stem-cell research that’s the opposite of pro-life. We were so interested in finding a cure that we weren’t looking at how it’s done.” Kallsen also now believes that adult-stem-cell research is more promising than he had thought at the time of the meeting.

“I don’t believe that…there was any intention to be deceitful or mislead us,” says Kallsen of the JDRF. “There’s a lot of good people in the JDRF…. I’m not here to bash the JDRF.” He says he wants to talk people at the organization into putting more of an emphasis on adult-stem-cell research and less of one on embryo research. Since the meeting with Souder, Kallsen has also broadcast his views on the issue on a Christian radio program he does weekly.

I’m sure that there are plenty of other families suffering from juvenile diabetes who support taxpayer funding for embryo research and would remain adamantly for it regardless of how much they heard about the killing of embryos and the possibilities of other research. But neither congressmen nor the press should assume that all the citizen lobbyists who have gone to the Capitol have the full story on this issue, are deeply committed to funding for embryo research, or are immune to persuasion.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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