Being pro-life got personal when Eileen Schuller discovered fetal tissue was being used to treat the disease that is slowly weakening her mind and body

Eileen Schuller couldn’t believe her ears. Like other members of her group – who call themselves Parkinsonians – she had eagerly anticipated hearing the guest speaker, a medical doctor who come to share the latest trends in research on Parkinson’s Disease.

But had he really said what she thought he had said? Were researchers really planting human fetal tissue in rats’ brains to test its potential for relieving symptoms of her disease? Until that year, 1987, she had heard only of experimental therapies involving adrenal cell injections. But tissue from aborted babies?

As a trained nurse, Eileen understood that the term “abortion” was used by medical professionals for spontaneous miscarriages – as well as elective abortions. But her common sense told her that research would require a supply which could only be met through the abortion industry.

Could it really be possible that researchers saw no ethical dilemma in using the bodies of babies – whose lives had been prematurely ended through elective abortion – to improve the quality of life for others?

“I was shocked! But when I looked around at the others from my group – Parkinsonians I’d been meeting with for years – I saw no reaction. That shocked me even more.”

That moment marked the collision of two causes dear to Eileen’s heart – Parkinson’s Disease and the pro-life movement. Though it was a conflict she had not anticipated, it was one God had clearly prepared her for – to be His eyes and His voice.

Part of that preparation began in 1976. Eileen was in her 20s – married fresh out of nursing school, a good Catholic girl bearing three children in a row – when her life took a turn she never expected it to take.

“I started having trouble pinning diapers, brushing my teeth, tying shoes. My gait seemed unsteady.”

The doctors, at a loss, judged her problems to be psychological, and sent her to a psychiatrist.

“They said I was having too many children, that I should stop,” Eileen remembers.

In spite of their warnings, Eileen did become pregnant again. It was during this fourth pregnancy that she learned she had Parkinson’s Disease. Early onset had delayed the diagnosis, since most who share the disease are elderly.

Eileen’s natural inclination to research led her to learn all she could about her illness. Her symptoms were caused by the gradual deterioration of nerve centres in the brain. The disease was progressive – eventually leading to tremors, muscle rigidity, and pain – but not life-threatening. Doctors said it could be controlled with medication.

Eileen waited until her baby was born, then began the medication. “Those were ‘the honeymoon years,'” she says. “At first, the medication does wonders.

“But after several years, the drugs didn’t seem to work as well. And there was a problem with the birth control pills they put me on. I hated the mood swings, so I stopped taking them. I got pregnant right away.”

The new life she carried gave her doctors cause for consternation.

“They wanted me to get an abortion, but I wouldn’t hear of it,” Eileen says. “My neurologist had a fit. I had to sign a waiver that I had been informed of the risk.”

In 1982, no one knew exactly what risk Eileen was taking. Since early onset Parkinson’s was rare, very few on medication were of child-bearing age. There was no documentation of possible side effects on a baby before or after birth.

Eileen’s upbringing and faith led her to choose life no matter what. And her fifth baby (now 16) was born in excellent health.

“I never thought of Roe v. Wade until it hit my life,” Eileen says. But the conflict between the medical community’s abortion advice and her own religious convictions tilled the soil of her soul.

Shortly after her daughter’s birth, Eileen heard Fr. Tom Cusack, a pro-life speaker, at a meeting in a neighbouring parish. She was so inspired by his message that she started a pro-life group in her own parish – St. Dorothy’s in Drexel Hill (in the Philadelphia archdiocese).

For five years, Eileen’s pro-life advocacy and Parkinson’s Disease activities existed peacefully side-by-side. Then came the night in 1987 when she first heard of research involving fetal tissue and Parkinson’s.

“I immediately recognized the conflict,” Eileen says. “I researched and distributed information to my group, hoping to raise awareness. I contacted our national organization and tried to get some answers. I wanted to know if the money we raised was going into this kind of research. I only met with stonewalling.

“I knew Parkinson’s would be the gateway that opened up the whole realm of fetal-tissue research. I had never been ashamed of having Parkinson’s. But at that point I became ashamed.”

Even as she was struggling with the knowledge that a cure for Parkinson’s might be found using babies denied their own chance at life, Eileen was staggered by the reaction of her fellow Parkinsonians to her concern. Though they wanted to hear about the progress being made in the research, they did not want to be confronted with the ethical questions.

As Eileen points out, a confused young woman wrestling with the grim prospect of abortion may soothe her conscience with this false hope – that subtracting her baby’s life may add up to good after all.

Those affected by Parkinson’s, usually older, should be wiser. Instead they seem inclined to think: “After all, these babies would have been aborted anyway. Why not harvest some good from the situation?”

According to Eileen, their silence makes them complicit not only in the dehumanization of the unborn baby, but in their own as well. As she says in her website Patient Advocates for Morally Responsible Research (http://www.imababy. com/fetal.html): “If we allow an aborted baby to be treated as nothing more than a research object to be harvested, spliced, cloned and grown in the laboratory – under the guise of finding a cure for disease – we, as the chronically ill and handicapped, will find ourselves ‘disposable research objects’ someday. Count on it!”

For 11 years, Eileen has been researching and spreading the word about fetal-tissue research, withstanding much backlash from the Parkinson’s and medical communities. In the tradition of those who bear witness for God’s truth, she has surely been like a voice crying in the wilderness.

“I need support – people who will speak out and get involved. Even though the fetal-tissue research for Parkinson’s didn’t live up to researchers’ expectations, the issue is not as dead as some people believe.

“Just last year, the Udall Bill for Parkinson’s Research passed along with the Appropriations Bill. House Representative Chris Smith had introduced a bill identical except for a clause that none of the funds could be used to support fetal tissue research. It was defeated.”

But worse, the debate never reached the ears of those who most needed to hear it – Parkinsonians. Newsletters funded by the national foundations supporting Parkinson’s research refused to print letters discussing the alternatives.

“I would love to support research for Parkinson’s, but I can’t under these conditions. I feel I am discriminated against because of my religious convictions. I’m sure there must be others who feel the same.”

But the problem is monolithic. “Hospitals need money to stay in business. Money comes from investors. Investors want a return on their investment. Doctors need research money. Science is developing rapidly because they want to produce patentable products. We have an aging population and vast numbers of baby boomers are seeking ways to prolong their youth. The result of all these factors is that investors are dictating research policy.”

Investors are blinded by desire for profit. Parkinsonians are blinded by their desire for a cure at any cost. “They feel it’s their right,” Eileen says.

Eileen sees the situation all too clearly: “I think about the babies. Nobody sees them. People see my suffering, but they don’t see the suffering of the babies.”

And her voice (through her website) is clear as well: “Silence is not golden! At least we have a voice. The unborn child does not. Speak out for those who cannot speak. Oppose fetal research!”

What is life like for Eileen now? At 52, she has successfully mothered five children – while being married to her husband Arthur. Four children currently live at home. “Some days are better than others,” she said – meaning some days her muscles might be rigid and her husband and children would understand that they must pitch in for dinner and other chores. On the day she was interviewed for this article, Eileen was dealing with her youngest son’s wisdom teeth removal and recovery. It was a very good day.