Friday, June 10, 2005

Episode III: Revenge of the Sick

Dear Senator Coleman,

Thank you for your prompt response with the boilerplate Bush administration policy on stem cell research. Please pass along my thanks to the aid who sent the actual reply. I certainly wasn't expecting you to respond personally. I'm fine with the fact that this is how communication with our politicians operates. But I must say I was disappointed to see the 'cloned' Republican response (pun very much intended), quoted verbatim, without any personal insight. An issue as important as this requires a great deal of discussion, analysis, and soul searching. None of us should consider it lightly, as I am sure you would agree.

As to the specifics of your response, I have several points to address.

You rightfully state that embryonic stem cell research is in its infancy, and I fully recognize that the benefits of this research may very well not be realized before I die. But I fail to see how that is a valid reason for not pushing forward now. Regardless of whether the promise is satisfied, we should do all we can, immediately, to determine if lives can be saved. To do otherwise betrays those of us alive today.

You also correctly state that President Bush is the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research, at what you call 'record levels'. You don't lie, but you fail to point out that scientists have only been able to do experiments with human embryonic stem cells (hESC) since late 1998. If such research is in its infancy now, it was barely 'embryonic' during the final term of Bill Clinton, the only president who could have funded it before. But the cat was already out of the bag at that point anyway. The NIH had a protocol in place for such research, and the President's policy vetoed it. I can hardly give President Bush credit for his actions when he has severely limited the government's support of a vital new avenue for saving lives.

The Bush administration policy does indeed allow for unlimited federal funding of research using stem cell lines existing before August 2001. But I ask you, why hasn't the President proposed any bills to actually fund what even he admits may save millions of lives? I say: show me the money. California did, so why not Capital Hill? Private sector funding amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to the typical research funding provided by the government. Academic institutions overwhelmingly rely on federal funds. Without them, my family and the families affected by all the other "orphan" diseases are left to beg for help on the street. Wall Street that is. But if the government isn't fully behind it, the free market simply won't cover the tab.

Furthermore, of the original embryonic stem cell lines available, only 22 remain viable for research. And as you mention, many of them are contaminated with mouse feeder cells, making them unlikely candidates for use in animal research, much less in humans. These 22 lines, even fully intact, are hardly "more than sufficient for basic research." Most doctors agree that it will not be long before the remaining lines are useless, and that we need to open up research on the over 150 identified potential lines available to us.

You note the director of NIH stating that contamination of existing lines will only matter when research is ready for human trials. Well aren't those trials inevitable if such therapy is ever to become useful? And while adult stem cells have certainly proved valuable and hold great potential for a variety of illnesses, even the NIH states that "Human embryonic stem cells are thought to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells. This means that embryonic stem cells may be pluripotent, that is, able to give rise to cells found in all tissues of the embryo except for germ cells rather than being merely multipotent, restricted to specific subpopulations of cell types, as adult stem cells are thought to be."

The bottom line, Senator Coleman, is that the current Bush administration policy is far too limiting for scientists to make significant progress in this arena. The policy panders to the left, by providing half-truths and relying on the convenience of stem cell lines created before President Bush was elected, while satisfying the far right electorate who put him office by supposedly sparing the "further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life". What's next? A ban on masturbation? After all, sperm has that same potential doesn't it?

But I digress. The fact is, those same embryos the President claims to be saving are being destroyed anyway when a couple chooses not to use them for implantation. They can't become a child outside of a uterus. If the Bush administration wants to be consistent, why aren't they calling for a ban on in-vitro fertilization, which produces the excess embryos in the first place? If life is so precious, why did they rush to war with Iraq without expending all possible avenues of diplomacy as was promised? Why are millions of our own citizens without health insurance? I simply fail to see how the President has the moral high ground on matters of life and death.

But you are not President Bush. You are Senator Norm Coleman and you represent the needs of your state. You represent the needs of me and the thousands of us across the state who need your help. You have a tremendous opportunity to differentiate yourself on this and many other issues by doing what you feel is right. If you truly feel the current stem cell research policy is doing the job for me and others like me, so be it. But if you feel, as I do, that we should do everything we possibly can to save the lives of millions all over the world suffering from diseases for which embryonic stem cell research may one day provide a cure, then I ask that you reconsider your current stance and support the legislation coming before you.

As I've said, I am absolutely confident that one day the government will do the right thing on this issue. California has already taken a giant leap forward, and other Republicans are coming on board. In the meantime, myself and the millions of people fighting to stay alive will continue to press forward. And I will keep hope alive that you will act in time, so that perhaps I will live long enough to help my wife in raising my beautiful daughter.

Thank you for your time.


Scott Stafne

As you may have surmised, above is the letter I sent back to Senator Coleman following his very PC response to my initial inquiry. Boilerplate as I called it. I love that word. Anyway, you may also have surmised that I'm very passionate about this issue. It is not an issue I consider lightly. As with abortion, I've struggled with all the related practical, moral, and emotional issues involved. When I was younger, I very much felt like the pro-choice movement, that the government should simply keep its hands off of women's bodies. And how dare they demand that a baby be born into a desperate situation while at the same time cutting funding for virtually every support program designed to help those babies? While that issue still exists and still frustrates me, I think I've turned over a new leaf since my daughter was born. I will not join any of the fanatical pro-life organizations who obviously fail to see the entire picture. But I know in my heart that I could never be a part of an abortion. I could never advise someone to take part in one either.

But embryonic stem cell research is quite different, and I hope you can see that difference too. While I'm sure they exist, I have yet to meet a single person with a disease such as ALS who doesn't feel the same. And I have a strong suspicion that if President Bush, Senator Coleman, or one of their children, were to find themselves in my situation, they would change their policies in a heartbeat. For those folks who disagree with my stance, I fully expect that they won't accept any of the cures that arise from embryonic stem cell research when they arrive. I fully expect they will deny treatment, and go quietly to their death.

Yeah right. I didn't think so.


Torial said...

Enjoyed seeing you on Saturday.

Not sure if I'll have much time to respond, but I hope to do so.

Here's my views in a nutshell:
* I am pro-life, and thus believe that embryos are humans that we need to value / cherish / etc just as we would other people (such as yourself)

* I think it is disgusting that pharmaceuticals companies spend so much on advertising. I would support banning advertisments of prescription drugs to anyone bug those who can prescribe or dispense them. If it is a freedom of speech issue, then at least not allow it on TV, radio (which they do have control of)

* I think the US Gov't should give tax rebates to every new parent who donates the placenta / blood for research. Likewise, give _some_ tax rebates to hospitals or doctors that follow the practice. This seems like it would allow for some (although not complete, I grant you) wider exploration of embryonic stem cells without the ethical questions of is it life involved.

* Possibly encourage research in fields by given loan credit to Doctors and Nurses if they work on or particpate in targeted research projects (such as ALS).

Anyways, America's priorities are backwards -- I am sorry to say :-(

Gotta run and pretend to work...


Torial said...

P.S. I think the Bush's phrasing of the problem is an attempt to be political, and is not appropriate for this topic. He doesn't seem to have moral clarity on this issue (one way or the other)

dobro said...

It is always interesting to me to see a defense of the indefensible.

dobro said...

Always interesting to think about this stuff. I know for you it is more than just interesting. Wish it were more than just interesting for those who don't yet have a direct stake in it. Maybe that would clarify their thinking a bit.

Other countries will carry forward, and I'm sure that the people who oppose this will be happy to have the option of proclaiming their moral opposition while then benefiting from the technology for they and their children.