10.26.2006

Stem Cell debate deserves better...

The issue of stem cell research has gotten ugly lately. Michael J. Fox has now done an ad for the Doyle campaign about the importance of stem cell research for Parkinson's Disease. Rush Limbaugh has accused Fox of exaggerating his condition for sympathy and lost in all the rhetorical noise is the debate we should be having.

I have no problem with Michael J. Fox using his celebrity for a cause he believes in. He has done incredible charitable work through his foundation and should be praised as a fine human being for it. I watched my great-Uncle suffer through Parkinson's Disease for 20 years and it was hard enough to watch him suffer, let alone imagine what it was like to live with the disease.

Still, the debate over stem cell research has been so politicized that it is no longer an issue of what is best for the science and the research, but rather this has devolved into partisan bickering. Unfortunately, both Fox and Limbaugh have done nothing but make it worse. As I said, and I mean this with complete sincerity, Fox deserves all the credit in the world for raising awareness for Parkinson's and raising money for research into a cure for it. However, his celebrity does not excuse him from criticism. He has done interviews and appearances where his tremors are almost undetectable thanks to the medication he takes, yet in the commercial they are almost a distraction. Still, this for me is not an issue. I watched my Uncle have good days and bad for years, even on treatment.

This is where Limbaugh crossed the line. By accusing Fox of acting to exaggerate his tremors, Limbaugh made the issue the big bad Republican attacking a sick man. Not to mention the fact that it is inappropriate to accuse someone of exaggerating their condition to help their cause. Fox has done a lot of good, so to question his motives I think is wrong.

That said, the larger problem, and the reason that I think Fox shares some blame in this dust-up, are the claims made by Fox and others about the potential of stem cell research. What happens with these types of ads is that they create a false sense of hope. They create the sense that if only we have this research, there will be miracle cures for all of our worst afflictions. While there is some potential in stem cell research, most of the successful tests have actually come from adult and umbilical chord cells. No one in either party, to my knowledge, has suggested banning that research. Instead all stem cell research is lumped together as embryonic, and that is wrong because it obscures the debate we should be having.

There are moral and ethical questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research. Instead of grouping all stem cells together, we should be separating the embryonic research from the adult and umbilical chord research. We should continue the research on the other stem cells and try to find cures for Parkinson's and diabetes and Alzheimer's. But we must have a serious and honest debate on the potential and the implications of embryonic stem cell research.

We are talking about life and death with these issues, it is not something to be tossed around or diminished like we would a tax cut or a spending bill.