Politics & Policy

An Adult Approach…

...to life and death.

These days it’s common to hear that “conservative” or “pro-life” policy toward stem cells is a disservice to folks like the late President Ronald Reagan who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Quite a bit of the media coverage about the new pope, Benedict XVI, has emphasized that he’s against stem-cell research. In a recent Washington Post article, Ivy Reyes, who had stopped by a Manhattan church to say a prayer for pontiff, emphasized to a reporter: “I’m hoping he can find a balance with the science.”

If you follow the media’s lead, we are to believe that the pope, like President Bush, is against stem-cell research. But neither of them is against stem-cell research. Actually, I don’t know anyone who is against stem-cell research. And I would know, because I agree with the Vatican and the U.S. president on this topic.

My posse is against embryonic-stem-cell research, and against cloning to create embryos for use in stem-cell research (or any research). But we’re not against stem-cell research.

Embryonic-stem-cell research is not the only hope for mankind, as we are typically led to believe. The prospects of adult-stem-cell and umbilical-cord stem-cell research are repeatedly ignored by media and activists who could use both to promote funding of and research in stem-cell projects and totally avoid the ethical chaos that comes with working with human embryos.

Earlier this year, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, put his Church’s view clearly in a pastoral letter on human life: “Adult stem cell research … has been described as the most promising advance in medical science in the last decades. The Catholic Church is not opposed to the development of these therapies and remedies for a host of ailments and deficiencies that afflict the body. Stem cell research using stem cells from ethical sources is a continuation of the work that has been done for millennia by physicians and researchers seeking cures for illness and healing for the sick.”

Adult stem cells made a memorable appearance in the presidential elections last fall, when, during the second prime-time debate, questioner Elizabeth Long asked: “Senator Kerry, thousands of people have already been cured or treated by the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord stem cells. However, no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells. Wouldn’t it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?”

Senator Kerry didn’t have much of a response, and most folks glossed over it and moved on. His running mate, meanwhile, would later shamelessly use the death of Christopher Reeve to play snake-oil salesman: “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

But Long was right-on with her question. And the Democratic ticket was painfully and dangerously deaf and dumb.

After a nation watched Ronald Reagan’s son praise the medical promise of embryonic stem cells at the Democratic convention, Ronald D. G. McKay, a stem-cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, called the contention that embryonic-stem cells will cure Alzheimer’s “a fairy tale.”

As Michael Fumento, author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World, one of the few commentators who’ve shone a light on adult stem cells, has written: “Scientists have already discovered at least 14 types of ASCs that … could perhaps be ‘trans-differentiated’ into all the types of cells we need.”

And adult stem cells are not mere pie-in-the-sky hopes of potential medical progress. Adult stem cells are cells at work today. Dr. Scott Gottlieb has written, “Adult stem cells have already been used for more than 20 years as bone marrow transplants to reconstitute the immune systems of patients with cancer and to treat blood cancers such as leukemia.”

Umbilical-cord stem cells are another potentially fertile opportunity for medical progress. Cord blood is rich in stem cells. A mid-April report from the Institute of Medicine, the results of a yearlong study, recommended the establishment of a national network of cord-blood stem-cell banks for just this reason. Congress, which has a cord-blood bill on the table, should focus on this concrete alternative to endless yapping.

As the report notes, four million babies are born every year in the United States and the majority of their umbilical cords are thrown away. They could be used to treat some 11,700 Americans annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. That’d be a concrete start.

We’re all adults here–and adult and umbilical-cord stem cells make sense for new medical research. How about a mature discussion, free of some of the hollow hype? Lives depend on it.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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