Can a day go by when the controversy over harvesting stem cells from human embryos fails to grow more complicated, more intense?
In just the past few weeks many of the “givens” that had governed the debate have fallen by the wayside, including the idea that these “master cells” are uniquely situated to cure a host of devastating diseases.
Proponents had long assured critics and nonpartisans alike that they were merely going to experiment on “spare” embryos “left over” at fertility clinics. But just last month, the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Virginia reported that researchers had actually created human embryos for the sole purpose of extracting their stem cells. Virtually the next day the Washington Post reported that a Massachusetts firm was attempting to clone human embryos whose stem cells they would harvest.
Almost simultaneously, two startling developments undercut the underpinnings of the advocates’ argument. An article in the July 6 edition of Science strongly suggested that embryonic stem cells may harbor unique genetic abnormalities. This complete surprise follows on the heels of the mountains of recent experimental evidence demonstrating that stem cells from adult sources were at least as promising as those culled from human embryos.
Equally significant is that the public has learned there is a program whereby some couples who have created embryos they've not implanted are donating them to other couples, typically those who have had problems conceiving or carrying a baby to term. Several of the lovely children who've been successfully adopted made an enormously moving appearance at a congressional hearing July 17. In other words, “spare” embryos are not necessarily going to be destroyed.
However, advocates of embryo-destructive stem cell research have many tools at their deposal, including a well-received new book by journalist Morton Kondracke. Saving Milly is his account of how Parkinson's disease has “kidnap[ed]” his wife.
As a high-profile member of the Washington media establishment — when he's not serving as executive editor and columnist for Roll Call, a publication read avidly by congressional staffers and not a few of their bosses, he's popping up on a number of political-talk TV programs — Kondracke is strategically placed to have a major impact in the high-powered campaign to win federal funding of research that requires the killing of human embryos to go forward.
Kondracke tells you frankly that he is a man in search of a miracle. And he is persuaded that, in embryonic stem cells, he has found one.
Often described as “blank slates” or cells that “haven't made up their minds yet what they'll be,” embryonic stem cells supposedly can be induced into turning into virtually any of the 220 types of cells and then transplanted into a patient.
Kondracke sees embryonic stem cells as a kind of universal life jacket that can rescue people suffering from everything from Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease to cancer, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Alas, he is hardly the only one blinded by assertions so hyperbolic that, in retrospect, they will seem almost comically overblown.
Quite a few politicians, including a few pro-lifers, have bought into the speculation — along with almost all the editors of America's mainstream editorial pages and nearly all of the organizations which lobby for federal funding to research “their” disease. The tragic irony is that the bevy of morally acceptable alternatives — adult stem cells, stem cells from placentas, and umbilical cord blood — have proven track records of helping people.
As Indiana State University Professor David Prentice explained in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, “Adult stem cells have already been used successfully in clinical trials to treat cartilage defects in children, restore vision to patient who were legally blind, relieve systemic lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, and cure severe combined immunodeficiency disease.”
Throughout Saving Milly (subtitled Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease), Kondracke seems to brush aside questions about journalistic ethics raised by what he has done and continues to do through his work: lobby.
When he gave up heading an organization that lobbied on behalf of doubling the NIH budget over a five-year budget, Kondracke convinced himself that it was ethically acceptable to buttonhole presidents (and presidential candidates), write a stream of indignant columns on behalf of greater funding before indicating that it was his wife who was the “close relative” with Parkinson's that he had written about all along and, all in all, virtually erase the line between journalist and lobby-ist. Maybe he's looked around at the cheerleading for embryonic stem cells masquerading as “reporting” and concluded he's in the mainstream.
But ferocious debates over embryonic destructive stem-cell research and journalistic ethics are not the only issues raised by Saving Milly. The fear of eventually being unable to swallow compounds his wife's understandable (but thankfully unjustified) fear of abandonment. In a desperately depressing last chapter, Kondracke tells the reader of suicide's seductive appeal — of how, based on what he thought he understood Milly to want, Kondracke lay in bed “playing out strategies for the Final Exit option, becoming more panicky each time I did so.”
But in a July 1 interview with CSPAN's Brian Lamb, we learned that Milly has now decided she would accept a feeding tube if or when she loses her ability to swallow, as long as she can take it out when she wants to. The book would seem to indicate that Milly is clinically depressed, a condition sometimes better handled by medication than other times. Meanwhile, Milly's better half wages war with himself over whether or not to accept assurances that dehydrating his wife to death would provide a painless, “natural” solution.
Like his book, Kondracke stands at the intersection of public policy, journalism and medical research. In his steadfast loyalty to Milly, he stands as a model for all spouses.
It is sad indeed that, like so many of his peers, this caring, sensitive man hasn't a clue why pro-lifers stand so resolutely against the latest effort to turn human beings into commodities.
He tells us he has grown up during the 14 years of Milly's long illness. Based on that assurance, maybe there is hope for him yet.
Dave Andrusko is editor of National Right to Life News.