On Oct. 9, the embryonic stem cell research movement got its martyr with the death of actor Christopher Reeve. A decade ago, the man who played Superman in a series of movies in the 1970s and 1980s fell in a horse-riding accident and became a quadriplegic. In recent years, he became the poster-child for ESCR and one of its leading activists. Not surprising, his body was barely cold when Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates respectively, invoked his name on the campaign trail to paint President George W. Bush as a callous and uncaring religious fundamentalist who puts the lives of “spare embryos” ahead of those Americans suffering from various illnesses such as cancer, ALS and Parkinson’s disease – or those disabled, such as Christopher Reeve. Edwards went so far as to promise that if the Democrats recaptured the White House, the wheelchair-bound would be able to walk once again, leading some conservative commentators to charge the North Carolina senator with a Messiah complex.
The Democrats have tried to turn ESCR into a wedge issue, repeatedly insinuating that all that stands in the way of cures for everything from juvenile diabetes to leukemia, from Parkinson’s to paralysis, is President Bush and his “unscientific” views. But it is Kerry and Edwards, in their promotion of embryonic stem cell research as an immediate cure-all, who are unscientific. They talk as if cures and treatments are just around the corner, if not already discovered but unused. They hold out the “promise” of cures, even though ESCR has yet to prove itself medically viable.
Meanwhile, stem cells from more ethical sources – such as skin, fat and brain cells as well as umbilical cord blood – have proven effective in limited clinical trials. ESCR may prove one day to be an effective medical treatment (if still unethical), but stem cell therapies from less problematic sources are curing and treating people today.
The tactics of senators Kerry and Edwards on the campaign trail are downright cruel, falsely raising the hopes of seriously ill people and their loved ones.
Furthermore, the political fight over ESCR is distracting the public from the successful application of non-embryonic stem cell research. For all the charges that the president’s position is anti-science, it is Kerry and Edwards who are promoting an unscientific position. Are they really ignorant that non-embryonic stem cell research is being routinely applied in clinical trials, whereas ESCR is still far from that point? In the case of stem cell therapies, science and morality are leading to the same conclusion, something that eludes the moral imagination and policy pronouncements of the Democratic ticket.