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New Year's, Stem Cells and Monty Python

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Like fists on the roof, the rain pounded down. But I didn't care, I liked the rain, especially when I was safe inside, where nothing could get at me.

Then the power went out.

There being not a whole lot else to do at four in the morning, when you're wide awake and the computer won't turn on, I put on my seven-ninety-five Walmart rain slicker and went for a walk.

The whole neighborhood was dark.

As I approached the path to our little river (technically a drain-off ditch from the Fremont Hills) a silly song came to me, from the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life.

The song was about condoms, and birth control:

"Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.
Every sperm is wanted, every sperm is good; every sperm is needed, in your neighborhood."

"Every sperm is sacred"?

In some religions, that is an article of faith.

My family is Catholic, and we shake our heads when the Pope with great effort decides that maybe -- maybe! -- condoms can be used to prevent the spread of disease, but definitely not for birth control.

In real life, of course, if every sperm produced by just one man was implanted in a womb and became a child, the world would be massively overpopulated--by just that one man! Fortunately, under normal conditions, millions or billions of sperm die for everyone that becomes a registered voter.

But it is not just Catholics whose leaders are uncomfortable with matters of reproduction.

I grew up Protestant (Presbyterian and Southern Baptist) and remember a fire and brimstone preacher telling us boys that masturbation was mass murder, because every wriggling sperm alive and had purpose, a potential human being... He told the Biblical account of Onan, who "spilled his seed upon the bed" and was eaten by bears for his crime.

I was eight years old, a sheltered child, and thought of seed in agricultural terms. Those little packets in the gardening store must be more dangerous than they appeared.

Then came a terrifying story about a boy so pure he took a hatchet and chopped off his own hand to end temptation -- "If thine eye offend then, pluck it out" roared the Preacher -- followed by the dramatic revelation that seed-spillers were at risk of going blind, and growing hair on the palms of the hands.

I was confused. If people plucked out their eyes, of course they would be at risk of going blind -- but why would that make you grow hair on your hands?

And the only sperm I knew about were whales.

It's funny looking back.

But the laughter ends when people who believe such myths take power.

The leading Republican candidate for President in 2012, former Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, has "endorsed (the) Colorado Human Life Amendment that would define personhood as a fertilized egg."

For anyone who supports stem cell research, this should be terrifying. A fertilized egg is a person?

When a married woman has a heavy period, that can mean she is shedding a fertilized egg -- an embryo -- is that a person? Are we supposed to have a little funeral for the tampon?

Personhood laws would not only criminalize embryonic stem cell research, but also "the pill" and other forms of birth control -- plus abortion at any stage, including from rape or incest- and indeed the entire field In Vitro Fertility (IVF) assisted birth, which has helped millions of families have children.

Fortunately, Coloradans recognized this amendment as the extremist nonsense that it was, and rejected it (twice) by a 3-1 margin. But Huckabee is for it.

People have argued for centuries about when life begins. Legally, in America, it begins with viability, when the baby can live on its own outside the womb. For the Catholic philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas, it began with the quickening, when the baby first stirred inside the mother, in about the fourth month. Jews and Muslims believing that until about forty days, what is inside the womb is to be regarded as water, and only after that does it gradually attain increasing levels of personhood.

But never in history has personhood been claimed outside the woman's body -- what's next? Are we to believe that life begins with the twinkle in Dad's eye?

When people take religious stands that would prohibit embryonic stem cell research, they are not protecting children -- they are endangering them.

Think about the most precious members of our families: our children.

If something goes wrong, are we not required to move heaven and earth to protect them?

I have a little friend, Pranav, who just had a birthday, and is now seven-years-old. A handsome and dignified young man, Pranav loves Disneyland, and intends to be president when he gets big.

But Pranav has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA): a deadly progressive condition similar to ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. SMA kills children, often before the age of two.

Though his mind is clear and strong, and he can feel everything, Pranav's body is now almost completely paralyzed. He cannot sit up on his own. In time he may need help just to open his eyes. He may lose the ability to swallow.

His mother Kavitha gave up her office career in finance, so she could stay home and take care of him. Pranav is never more than a few feet away from her or her husband.

What is it like to take care of someone with SMA?

As she puts it:

"On a good night we hardly get 2 hours sleep at a stretch. He needs to be turned over in the bed (to prevent pressure sores-DR), his oxygen and heart rate must be monitored. His lungs need to be suctioned, his legs stretched ... We take care of these everyday needs between myself and my husband.

"On worse nights it is almost like an Emergency Room, with Pranav needing constant breathing treatments in addition to everything else: and he can go from good to worse in no time."

If he catches a cold, Mom will bring her chair to his bedside, and stay there all night, fighting to keep her son alive.

I asked her if I could mention then in this article, and she said yes, adding:

"If Pranav could travel, I would take him to Republicans who oppose the research, and have them see what he goes through."

Her hope of cure, like mine for my paralyzed son, is in regenerative medicine, specifically Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (HESCR).

Dr. Hans Keirstead of California is working to develop a cure for SMA, using stem cells from blastocysts that would otherwise be thrown away.

This is the same man whose work on spinal cord injury is now in human trials with Geron. A California law named after my paralyzed son, the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, paid for some of his early work on both conditions. (He has of course no connection with my political opinions.)

Keirstead has just applied for a human trials permission from the FDA. Last time, the process took nine years. More than 20,000 pages of correspondence passed between Geron, Keirstead, and the Food and Drug Administration, before all were satisfied that the therapy could be attempted. How long will it take this time? Hopefully not so long. Children are dying.

SMA damages children by destroying the long motor nerves (some three feet long) connecting spine and muscle.

The hoped-for treatment would grow these nerves in a Petri dish, and then transplant them directly into the spine. The procedure has worked in animal testing.

And remember Lou Gehrig, the great baseball player, who died of ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the disease now associated with his name? This new stem cell treatment may apply to that condition as well.

Unfortunately, some in the Republican party would like to stop the research: not only to block federal funding, but to criminalize it as well.

These ideologues describe embryonic stem cell research as like "killing young humans"? They even try to link the research to abortion, calling it "micro-abortions".

This of course makes no sense.

How can there be an abortion, when there is no pregnancy? No mother's womb, no baby.

If criminalized, stem cell research would be the ultimate victimless crime.

But you know what should be a crime? An anti-research law.

Some SMA babies have limbs so fragile, their bones could break just by being moved--and remember, they can feel everything, even if they cannot move their bodies.

Who shall we blame if their suffering is needlessly prolonged?

Those who block research for cure must take responsibility for the suffering their obstruction continues.

If the Religious Right is allowed to dictate science policy, the research which might save Pranav's life may actually be criminalized. In 2008, the Republican national platform called the elimination of all embryonic stem cell research, public and private.

America do not approve of this scientific censorship.

The most recent Gallup poll shows a majority of citizens (59%) support embryonic stem cell research, with 32% opposed, roughly 2-1 support.

Republicans support it the lowest--40%.

Independents come in higher--60%.

Democrats are the most supportive--72%.

Other polls show the support much higher, especially when it is explained that only blastocysts already scheduled to be thrown away will used for the potentially-life-saving research.

Unfortunately, when most people hear the word "embryo" they think about a baby in the womb, not some microscopic tissues in a dish of salt water, which is what we are talking about. The original definition of embryo, by the way, meant a blastocyst implanted in the womb--which would that none of the tissues used in the research could be called by that emotional name.

So here is the question every Republican authority figure must decide.

Will they rule from the dictates of the anti-research Religious Right?

Or will they let science policy be determined for the good of the American people?

Do they agree that every American family deserves the best medical treatment science can provide?

Or not?

I had gone about a mile and a half down the path beside the canal, when I came to a bridge.

I stopped suddenly. On the other side of the little river, the lights were on. I heard someone laugh as she got into her car.

But on our side of the river, everything was dark.

What if America goes dark in terms of scientific freedom, and the research is criminalized outright, or strangled through lack of funding?

Part of me worries this may happen, which is why I study Mandarin an hour a day. If the research is blocked here, and the Chinese get the cure for paralysis first, I will take Roman to Beijing.

But what a loss, if America abandons its leadership in healing science!

I stood for a moment, looking at the lights, then turned around and started back.

Before me, everything was black, and cold, and the leaves all wet and pounded into the mud. The rain had stopped, but the wind whistled, and the temperature was dropping. I shoved my stiffened fingers into the pockets of my sweatpants, under the yellow rainslicker.

And then another song came back to me, just bits and pieces, so I had to look it up later; based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

It was about a man wandering, deep in emotional agony: at a time when America was being ravaged by the Civil War:

"And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
And then the traveler hears bells, ringing out, defying the dark-- the bells of Christmas Day.
"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

I got home, and Gloria gave me a candle, which she had somehow found and lighted in the dark. I went upstairs, and worked on this essay on the battery-charged laptop.

We will work this situation out, somehow. Probably there will need to be a law officially supporting the research, so those who do not understand cannot block it for everyone.

Religion and science have always had a difficult relationship; probably they always will. One is based in articles of faith, intangible as love; the other deals on verifiable fact.

They are the heart and the mind of humanity: both are needed. At our best, we can work together.

It was Catholics, for example, who invented the modern hospital -- where one day, stem cell cures will be applied--and children with SMA will be freed from their agony.

Mr. Huckabee may well decide to change direction on his stem cell views; there is no crime in that: or cars would not have a reverse.

My faith is strong: both that God gave us a mind to think and a heart to care--and that America will continue to brighten the world with freedom and science; that is our heritage, our pride, and our hope for the future.

And just to give the story a happy ending, Gloria hollered up that we had electricity again!

I blew out the candle, and turned the lights back on.

Happy New Year, folks; the best is yet to come.

P.S. For more information on SMA, visit here.