By Richard M. Doerflinger
August 13, 2004
Who knew that the fiercest political debate of 2004 would be over embryonic stem cells?
Various reasons have been offered for this. The death of former President Ronald Reagan from Alzheimer's disease prompted some of his own family members to lobby for expanded use of these cells –until scientific experts explained that the idea of using them to cure Alzheimer's is a "fairy tale" (Washington Post, June 10, p. A3). The election season also tends to highlight divisive issues, and campaign promises to do more about health care are common.
There's just one thing that cannot be the reason for this zeal for cells obtained by killing human embryos. It cannot be based on new evidence that these cells will cure devastating diseases any time soon – because no such evidence exists.
The most obvious fact in the stem cell debate – and yet, somehow, the best-kept secret – is that embryonic stem cells have not helped a single human patient. Despite over two decades of research using mouse embryonic stem cells, they have yet to produce safe and effective cures in mice. While some animal trials suggest the cells may have a use, human trials (if any) could be many years away – in part due to the growing evidence that embryonic stem cells are hard to control, genetically unstable, and prone to forming tumors when placed in a body.
A second ignored fact is the emergence of morally acceptable alternatives that are as promising, or more so, in attacking disease. When Ron Reagan spoke at the Democratic convention recently about a possible cure for Parkinson's in ten years from embryonic stem cells, he apparently didn't know that a treatment has already shown great promise – using a patient's own adult stem cells.
Dennis Turner was treated for his severe Parkinson's disease in 1999, using stem cells from his own brain. The result was an 83% reversal of symptoms, even though only one side of his brain (the side producing the worst symptoms) was treated. He was able to resume his hobby of big-game photography, and even to scramble up a tree to escape a charging rhinoceros!
Mr. Turner appeared before a Senate subcommittee on July 14, asking Congress to fund broader clinical trials in this groundbreaking approach. After five years his own symptoms have begun to return – especially from the untreated side of his brain – and he'd like to be part of those trials. He was joined by two American women with debilitating spinal cord injuries, who have enjoyed dramatic improvements in movement and sensation after being treated with their own adult stem cells by a doctor in Portugal. Yet Senators who support embryonic stem cell research ignored their pleas, instead demanding the diversion of even more federal funds toward their own morally flawed and, so far, unsuccessful approach.
Truth is often the casualty when issues get political, but this is ridiculous. The drive for research that destroys human embryos has become disconnected from the facts, and is diverting attention and resources away from more feasible roads to treatments. The real casualties will be not only embryonic human beings, but born humans with terrible diseases as well.
More of the information needed to understand this issue is available in question-and-answer form: www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/bioethic/stemcell/answers08052004.shtml.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)