For the last 30 years of his life, my uncle suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder affecting brain cells that control motor skills and speech. In the early stages he could still move around, but as the disease progressed, he became almost completely immobile and lost all ability to talk. He became dependent on my aunt and a slew of home nurses to help feed, dress and do any other basic daily task for him.

Jessica Boullion
Rachel Wagner

When he first got the disease, there were hardly as many treatments for Parkinson’s as there are now, and even though drugs were being developed, it was too late for him to benefit from them. For the sake of people living with degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, it’s imperative that we raise awareness about these diseases to find more treatment options and a cure.

In a promising push forward, last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to loosen current restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – a measure the Senate already approved in April. As of August 2001, only research on existing stem cells could be federally funded, greatly restricting the amount of research and progress that could help people with diseases like juvenile diabetes or certain types of cancer.

Embryonic stem cells can differentiate into various types of tissue useful in replacing diseased or damaged tissue in a patient. Despite its medical benefits, embryonic stem cell research remains controversial because of the feeling that it destroys a human life. However, the pro-life argument regarding stem cell research is fraught with complications and contradictions.

Foremost, the embryos used in current research come from in vitro fertilization clinics where they would have been thrown out anyway. Similarly, the new bill stipulates that the research embryos will be donated from fertilization clinics with the donor’s permission in cases where they would have otherwise been discarded.

How, then, is it more pro-life to save an embryo that will ultimately be thrown away than to use that embryo to improve and save lives? It’s counterintuitive to protect something that will never have a fully developed life over a person who already has a life but suffers from a permanent, debilitating disease.

New developments have arisen in stem cell research that scientists hope will let them avoid any such “pro-life” controversies altogether. The cultivation of adult and amniotic stem cells allows stem cells to be developed without harming an embryo. However, adult stem cells are not as flexible as embryonic ones. Scientists are still unsure about the extent of an amniotic cell’s flexibility since research here remains relatively new. But a recent finding from Japan shows potential for adult skin cells to be reprogrammed back to their embryonic state. The only catch is that this research has been done solely on mice, and scientists are not quite sure the technique can work on humans.

All of these alternatives should be further explored, but these new developments should not be a reason to further delay embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells have already been proven effective and can turn into more than 220 cell types. Some politicians want to delay embryonic research funding based on the promise of these less controversial alternatives. Ironically, in postponing embryonic stem cell funding, more people will die of diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s and brain cancer.

I would like to think that my uncle did not suffer in vain and that we will find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. I would like to think that President Bush will not veto the new embryonic stem cell legislation. I would like to think that all the politicians who emphasize pro-life and family values will come around to value the life in my family.

Rachel Wagner can be reached at rachwag@umich.edu.

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