Burlington County Times, August 13, 2001

As I write this, President Bush has not yet made public his decision on public funding for stem cell research. The controversial issue raises several concerns in my mind.

One is the influence of a particular religious point of view on a political decision. The Catholic Church’s opposition to stem cell research is based on a religious view of when life – actual, not potential – begins. It is a view which is not shared by medical ethicist or by other organized religions, even those opposed to abortion rights. To allow the Catholic Church to dictate public policy on stem cell research would be analogous to the banning of all beef products from the United States because Hindus believe that cows are sacred.

Many Jehovah Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions. I have to wonder if the Catholic Church will prohibit its parishioners from availing themselves of any medical treatments developed through stem cell research.

Another issue is the intrusion of politics into medical decisions. For many years, the anti-abortion lobbyists blocked the importation of RU-486, the so-called “morning after pill,” which has been more accurately described as “emergency contraception.” The drug was banned even for research into its use as a treatment for breast cancer, for which it had shown promise in Europe.

More recently, researchers have been forbidden even to conduct research into whether marijuana has medical uses, even though clinical evidence has shown that it lessens the nausea caused by chemotherapy, increases the appetite in AIDS patients, and reduces the pressure causing blindness from glaucoma. Are we to believe that marijuana is more addictive than morphine or codeine, more poisonous than botulism, more dangerous than thalidomide, or more susceptible to abuse than Oxycontin? Yet morphine and codeine are routinely prescribed for surgical pain relief. Botox, which is made from the botulism toxin, is used not only in nerve disorders such as dystonia, but as a non-surgical alternative to cosmetic surgery to reduce wrinkles. Thalidomide is being used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and is being tested for use as a treatment of certain cancers. Oxycontin, despite its being implicated in several drug overdose deaths of teens, including some in New Jersey, is the only drug which adequately controls pain for cancer patients. And let us not forget the numbers of illnesses, deaths, and shattered families caused by addiction to nicotine and alcohol. Perhaps the problem is that the marijuana lobby isn’t as strong as the tobacco or alcohol ones?

Even if the federal government does not fund stem cell research, the experimentation will continue, both here and in Europe. Private research firms are already involved in the research, sometimes using methods, such as the creation of pre-embryos specifically for research, which have been decried by medical ethics boards. Unless the government bans all such research, as it did with marijuana, the private firms will continue, possibly with minimal or no oversight.

Private research firms receive their funding from individual investors. Such investors supply the funds not from altruistic motives but to earn a profit. The research is expensive. In order to make a profit, the fees for any treatments developed will be even more expensive. Most, if not all, medical insurance plans will not cover the treatments, considering them to be experimental. Without government subsidies, the only patients who will be able to afford the treatments will be the wealthy. Ironically, the same show business personalities and political figures who have come out publically in favor of government funding for stem cell research may be the only ones who will be able to afford the treatment fees if such funding is banned.

What we are talking about here comes down ultimately to one overriding issue: do we improve not just the quality of life but the life expectancy of the seriously ill? Or do we doom such patients to suffer because of those who believe that a few undifferentiated cells are as important as the already living? The anti-abortion groups like to use the Biblical phrase, “Choose Life.” That is exactly what those in favor of stem cell research are doing.


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