By Sophia Kirschenman
Ed Fallone has had juvenile diabetes for 20 years. His father died of complications from juvenile diabetes. And now his son, who is 10 years old, has juvenile diabetes. It is Fallone’s hope that one day, stem cell research will help find a medical therapy to aid his son.
“At my age it is unlikely that I will benefit from any cure,” said Fallone, now the president of Wisconsin Stem Cell Now, Inc. “However, it is my belief that [my son] will be spared his grandfather’s fate if we support the work of the researchers.”
The already hot debate regarding embryonic stem cell research has gained even more of the national spotlight this year as individual groups, states, and the new Congress have put more pressure on the government to officially endorse stem cell research.
The question of using embryonic stem cells—cells harvested from in vitro fertilization procedures—has become a highly polarized argument. For some, like Fallone, stem cell research is a promising endeavor and a potentially revolutionary scientific breakthrough. But for others, it represents a tampering with human life, and is not worth the costs. Essentially, the argument rests on the question of whether stem cell research is a moral, religious or scientific issue.
Faye Armitage, media spokesperson for Cure Paralysis Now, an advocacy group dedicated to promoting paralysis treatment, saw her son Jason paralyzed during a soccer game nine years ago. Jason was seven when he collided with another player and subsequently lost his ability to walk. Armitage believes that embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) will someday be used to find a way to help him walk.
“I can’t wait to see Jason walk again,” Armitage said in an interview with City on a Hill Press.
Armitage disputes the belief that using embryos for research is morally wrong—in fact she maintains that advancing the research is a moral obligation.
“Embryonic stem cells continue to be discarded by theÂ thousands every single day. Is it more moral to let these cells go to waste than to recycle them for life-saving research?” Armitage said. “In my opinion there is no human life lost while pursuing stem cell research. We are simply recycling already discarded cells, which were never implanted in the womb.”
While Armitage believes that ESCR is morally acceptable, others such as Kevin Fitzgerald, a founder of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, argue that stem cell research is not justifiable.
But for Fitzgerald, an associate professor of oncology at Georgetown University, a bio-ethicist and Jesuit priest, religion is not the issue.
Fitzgerald believes that the goal of regenerative research is to bring the highest number of those in fatal conditions to health; however he believes the money that funds that research could be better spent.
“If that’s the argument—curing the most people we can cure—instead of spending [$3 billion] for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, that [money] should go to clean water and sanitation for the 2.5 million people who don’t have it,” Fitzgerald said.
Last summer, President Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, a bill that would have allowed for increased federal funding of ESCR; it was the only veto the president has used during his two terms in office.
Though that bill had wide support from both House Republicans and Democrats (the bill was co-authored by Majority Leader Bill Frist), the new democratically-controlled Congress is fighting for a reversal of the decision. On Jan. 11, 2007 the House passed a bill that would remove the restrictions on stem cell funding that the president has defended. The Senate has yet to pass a similar bill, but individual states are not waiting for a national response and instead are pursuing their own stem cell agendas.
California is leading the way in stem cell research. Two years ago, voters passed Prop. 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, which allotted $3 billion for the sole purpose of stem cell exploration. However, that money has since been tied up in lawsuits.
Researchers in California cannot currently use money issued from Prop. 71, so the state government decided to award grants while they continue their court proceedings.
The first of these grants were approved on Feb. 16, 2007 as part of a two-day meeting in Burlingame, CA. The Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee (ICOC), the board that presides over the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), endorsed a total of 72 grants out of 231 applications, awarding approximately $45 million over the course of the next two years for stem cell exploration.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also appeared at the meeting and met with members on the board governing the CIRM. Though President Bush strongly opposes ESCR, Gov. Schwarzenegger does not.
“We have hope for the promise for incredible advancements in medicine,” Schwarzenegger said during a press conference. “As you know my father-in-law Sergeant Shriver has Alzheimer’s disease. I know what this would mean for people like him and their families.”
Schwarzenegger commended the work of both the researchers and the CIRM, and joked that scientists today are the “newest action heroes.”
Several people at the meeting, including Jennifer Rosaia, wore buttons that read, “I support stem cell research.” Rosaia, who worked for the CIRM, was part of the campaign team that helped pass Prop. 71. Rosaia is also Catholic.
Rosaia’s father has diabetes and members of her family have died of cancer; but ultimately, she believes there is a cure, and religion does not affect her position on ESCR.
“I think this is a scientific debate,” Rosaia said. “I think that when you have the opportunity to cure people, ethics really shouldn’t play a part. I think that people who have religious hang-ups about death and human lives are also a lot of the people who send groups of troops into war and battle fields.”
Dale Carlson, media spokesperson for the ICOC, sees ESCR as a scientific issue, and that it represents a great opportunity for the future of health.
“Stem cells have the potential to dramatically change not only the way we treat medical illnesses, but the way we understand them,” Carlson said in an interview with CHP. “We hope that at the end of 10 years we might have one stem cell derived therapy and four or five others in the pipeline.”
Carlson believes that the ICOC recognizes ESCR as a scientific debate; however he acknowledged that there are multiple reasons to be for, or against, ESCR. The lawsuits that the committee is facing are based on different factors, including moral concerns and financial interests.
“You find people of faith on both sides of the issue,” Carlson said. “It certainly plays a role. We’ve tried to look at this from a scientific perspective.”
While religion is often seen as a factor in the stem cell debate, many religious denominations in the United States, including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ as well as certain Jewish and Islamic associations, officially support stem cell research.
According to polls taken in Dec. 2006 by the Opinion Research Foundation for the Civil Society Institute, more than two out of three Americans said they would support the new Congress advocating the expansion of stem cell research. Of those polled, 69 percent of non-religious people were in support, while 52 percent of Evangelical Christians and 69 percent of Roman Catholics favored this action.
The bigger split appeared between Republicans and Democrats: While 81 percent of Democrats polled said they support ESCR, only 51 percent of Republicans agreed.
Kelly Hayes, president of the UC Santa Cruz College Republicans, thinks that religion can make a difference in this argument. However, she also acknowledged that Republicans often have varying perspectives.
“When it comes to hot issues like abortion or stem cell research, people from both the left and the right are quick to incorporate their religious beliefs,” Hayes said. “Views in the College Republicans are mixed on every issue—it varies for stem cell research, too.”
While religion, morality, party affiliation and science are all represented in the debate over ESCR, one that is not widely recognized or considered is women’s health. Hands Off Our Ovaries is a grassroots organization that focuses on scientific advancements, including embryonic stem cell research, in regards to woman’s health.
Diane Beeson, one of the directors of Hands Off Our Ovaries, is concerned with the process of harvesting a woman’s eggs—the way in which stem cells are collected. This process uses hormones to stimulate a woman’s body so that more eggs are produced. Beeson says that fertility doctors have been using this technique for two decades without adequately studying the side effects.
“Many risks are known to occur with this process,” Beeson said. “Of greater concern is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which has a wide range of symptoms including strokes and kidney damage, and is known to have caused six deaths in the [United Kingdom].”
There are no direct studies of the side effects of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, making it difficult to know how serious they may be.
“Long-term risks are poorly understood,” Beeson said. “A very serious concern of ours, and of many scientists, is the long-term cancer risk. We are unusual because we include people all across the political spectrum who care about women’s health.”
Regardless of politics or religion, a large number of people, including Gov.Schwarzenegger, believe that the potential benefits of stem cell research greatly outweigh the preliminary costs or risks involved in embryonic exploration.
“There are millions of people who need immediate cure,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said during his press conference. “We can’t give them immediate cure, but we recognize that every marathon begins with the first step. Let’s make that first step.”