Friday, June 22, 2007

Stem Cell Veto

by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2007 Journal-Register Newspapers, Inc.

Why won’t George Bush save my life?
I am a hard-working American citizen. I was born in Philadelphia, the so-called birthplace of liberty, where American democracy was founded. I’ve lived and worked in some of America’s great cities–New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles. I pay taxes. I am civic-minded and patriotic. I have never missed an election since I was old enough to vote. I spent four years in the Peace Corps. I taught literacy programs in the inner city as well as in prisons for more than a decade. I have worked on the front-lines of several civil rights movements. I am active in my community. I go to church. I founded and run an animal rescue shelter. I have been an award-winning journalist for more than 25 years. I have published more than 20 books. I teach college. I mentor kids. I have spent my life helping other people. I have even been given awards for doing so, awards that deemed me and my work a role model for others.
So why won’t the President help me? Why won’t he save my life? I’m a model citizen in many ways. And yet Bush refuses to commute my death sentence with just a few strokes of his pen.
I could understand if it were just my life that was at stake. But it isn’t. It’s the lives of one in sixAmericans–about 55 million people. That is how many Americans are suffering from life-threatening diseases that might be cured by embryonic stem cell research–research that the President has refused to fund not once, but twice in one year.
I wasn’t really surprised when the announcement came June 20th that Bush had once again vetoed a stem-cell research bill. Bush has only vetoed three bills in his entire presidency and each time it has been to set Americans up to die. Twice he has vetoed stem-cell research and several weeks ago he vetoed the bill that would have set limits on how many more Americans have to die in Iraq.
He says it’s about morality.
So even though I wasn’t surprised, I took this veto personally. One in six Americans has a disease that could be helped by stem-cell research. Which means *every* American knows someone whose life could be saved by stem-cell research. Which means even the President knows someone whose life could be saved by stem-cell research. Which means his decision to veto the bill is even more callous than it appears to me and to those 55 million other Americans.
I have been in a wheelchair for 13 years. That’s almost a quarter of my life–a long time not to be able to go for the long walks I used to take, or ride my bike to work as I did for years, or dance the night away as I was famous for. A long time to suffer.
I have a few good hours every day. Those hours are invariably spent working. Sometimes they are spent having dinner with family and friends, or seeing a film, or going to Mass. But none of those hours are spent walking or bicycling or dancing. I miss those things. A lot. Mostly I miss being able to do everything for myself, without asking others for help.
George Bush doesn’t care that I have been in a wheelchair for 13 years. He doesn’t care that my life is incredibly limited by having a serious degenerative disease of the central nervous system for which there is no cure or even treatment. He doesn’t care that this disease restricts my breathing, my vision, my ability to sit and stand and even swallow. Or, as a writer, hold a pen.
Of course, I am still fortunate. Although I have been in a wheelchair for more than a decade, I wasn’t always in a wheelchair. I used to walk, bicycle and dance. I traveled around the world as an investigative journalist.
But a lot of those 55 million other Americans who might benefit from stem-cell research have never had the choices I had because they were disabled from birth. Always in a wheelchair. Always kept from being the full person they could have been, if the disease they suffer from hadn’t altered their bodies irreparably.
I have a good friend who is going blind. She uses the white cane blind people use when they go outside and she wears thick glasses. She suffers from a rare disease that may or may not be helped by stem-cell research.
Even going blind–she has special software on her computer that allows her to read–she reads more than anyone I know, and everyone I know reads a lot. She’s a superb editor, one of the best I have ever had. I don’t want to think about the day she is no longer able to be my editor. I would like to save her sight.
Why won’t the President help her?
I guess it’s easy for some people to dismiss the needs of 55 million people–more people than live in all of Canada and Australia combined. But I suppose if you’ve spent your life in service to others, as I have, your perspective is a little different.
I simply do not like to see people suffering and dying.
The President, however, believes that to be an emotional response, not a scientific one. Which would be a solid enough answer to my query if Bush were relying at all on science, rather than his own ideology, his own alleged morality.
When Bush vetoed the bill proposed by the Democrats, he said it was because the science was unproven, which isn’t true. He also said that we can’t take life to save lives.
Okay, I’m confused–isn’t that exactly what we are supposed to be doing in Iraq: taking lives to save lives?
But let’s pretend that what the President said is true, even though it’s not.
What life are we taking in embryonic stem-cell research?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a government agency, answers the question-- What stages of early embryonic development are used to generate embryonic stem cells?–with the following answer:
“Embryonic stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Specifically, embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro--in an in vitro fertilization clinic–and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body. The embryos from which human embryonic stem cells are derived are typically four or five days old.”
Thus the embryos used in embryonic stem-cell research come from leftover cells that might have been used for in-vitro fertilization. These embryos will be discarded–tossed in the trash–if they are not used in stem-cell research.
President Bush thinks it’s better to toss these embryos in the trash than to use them to save the lives of 55 million Americans.
Readers of this column know I am pro-life: against war, against the death penalty, against abortion. I don’t eat animals, because I don’t believe in killing. The embryos in question are cells in petri dishes. They are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Embryonic stem-cell research is not experimentation on babies, as the President has tried to present it. This research is using a series of cells ready to be put in the trash that might be used instead to save millions of lives.
If these embryonic cells were children, wouldn’t there be a mass effort by the President to preserve them and then give them a Christian burial? Of course there would–we don’t throw babies in the trash in America. And when some people do–there are a few cases of this each year of young and desperate teenagers giving birth and putting their newborns in the trash–it is a crime. So if these stem cells are indeed babies, as the President contends, why isn’t it a crime to toss them in the trash?
In point of fact it is a crime to discard these cells, because doing so deprives millions like myself of the possibility of cures for our heretofore incurable diseases. Think of the genius of Stephen Hawking, limited by his suffering from ALS, unable to speak or move for years. Think of the children trapped in bodies tortured by Muscular Dystrophy, or those who won’t live beyond their twenties due to Cystic Fibrosis. Think of the young man in China with a 33-pound tumor on his face from neurofibromatoma which has ruined his whole life, deforming his body, making him a pariah in his village and obscuring his vision, hearing and speech. He told doctors this week that he’s never had a day in his life that wasn’t full of incredible misery and pain.
Think of all the suffering that could be stopped by research on cells the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Think of all the stem cells being thrown in the trash or washed down the sink rather than being used to save lives.
More than three-quarters of Americans believe stem-cell research is vital. Americans overwhelmingly want it–perhaps because they all know someone with diabetes, MS, ALS, MD or other diseases that could be cured by this research.
By vetoing the Democrats’ bill, President Bush has once again chosen to ignore the needs and desires of the American people whom he represents. That bill would have funded life-giving research for the 55 million Americans already suffering from diseases that could be cured through embryonic stem-cell research.
But it’s not just the 55 million, myself among them, already sick or dying from these diseases. It is about all the children who will be born with these diseases. It’s about all the people who will wake up one morning in their 20s or 30s like I did, or Stephen Hawking did, to a body suddenly inexplicably and irrevocably changed, destined to spend the rest of our lives in pain and suffering, till we are killed by that disease.
White House press secretary Tony Snow, who has been battling advanced colon cancer himself, said on June 20th: “This is, certainly not an attempt to muzzle science. It is an attempt, I
think, to respect people’s conscience on such an issue.”
The President said, “Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical–and it is not the only option before us.”
These statements, by Snow and Bush, are lies. Three-quarters of Americans want embryonic stem-cell research. Bush is, once again, disregarding the will of the American people and putting his own ideology above the needs of all Americans, and most especially, the 55 million whose suffering could be alleviated by embryonic stem-cell research. This is muzzling science and what’s more, it is totally unethical, not to mention disingenuous of Bush to say that embryonic stem cells that are about to be–literally–flushed down the drain, are better off as trash than as succor for millions of suffering *live human beings.*
When Bush last vetoed a bill, it was for supplemental spending for Iraq and it had a timeline for bring the troops home. He once again put his own personal agenda above the needs and demands of the American people–in that instance, to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home.
The President has shown amazing arrogance toward people worldwide, but to Americans in particular, because this is the country he is supposed to be leading. That arrogance may be why his approval rating dropped another couple of points after the stem-cell research veto. Bush’s approval rating is now the second-lowest in presidential history, having dropped lower than Jimmy Carter’s during the hostage crisis. The only president to have an approval rating lower than Bush’s current 26 percent was Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation, when his approval rating was 23 percent.
If the President continues to ignore the will of the American people on issues of grave concern to them, like the war or stem-cell research, his approval rating is bound to drop well below Nixon’s. Because like Nixon, Bush is utterly out of touch with what America needs and wants.
The stem-cell research debate is not over. The President may have given those of us who are dying his second veto on the importance of our lives, but Congressional Democrats have pledged to continue to present Bush with the same bill again and again until they have the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto or until there is a new president in Washington.
I wish George Bush valued life as much as I do. I wish he understood what it is like to know every muscle that keeps me alive–moving, swallowing, seeing, breathing, heart pumping–is degenerating. Perhaps it is selfish of me to want to live. But I know it isn’t selfish of me to want others to be free of the suffering I have experienced.
As a Catholic, I have my own deeply entrenched ideologies, but I guess unlike the President, I remember Jesus cured the sick. Bush has the power to do the same. He just won’t. And millions will suffer and die due solely to his willful, destructive arrogance.

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