Needless research limits hit home
By Ken Garcia
AS THE SOCIAL conservatives who make up the bleacher section of President Bush's political base found out last week, the high moral ground is sometimes filled with rather loose soil.
The slippery sensation common to those who inject religion into politics -- as experienced by dozens of Republican senators who took a mighty fall over the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- will likely be replayed throughout the year, most strategically in the continuing debate over stem-cell research.
At this week's Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan, son of the late president, is scheduled to speak about the critical need to relax restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research imposed by President Bush in August 2001 at the behest of the religious right. Over the next four months, there will be fervent debate over a California initiative to pass a $3 billion- bond issue to fund stem-cell research.
But I don't need sanctimonious politicians or self-interested lobbyists to tell me why the country desperately needs to expand the bounds of medical and scientific research. The best reason I know lies in Room 46 of a San Francisco convalescent hospital, largely out of touch with his surroundings, his proud past and his rather remarkable life. Even all the times I call him dad, I'm not even sure he knows he's my father.
My father is quietly being ravaged by Alzheimer's disease -- the same affliction that Reagan's famous father died from last month -- and one of the many chronic, debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases for which stem- cell research is believed to offer the promise of a future cure. About 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and untold millions more suffer from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses for which stem-cell research could yield improved treatments.
Yet stem-cell research is controversial because to cultivate the cells, human embryos have to be destroyed. Lost, or often pointedly left out, in the argument pushed by religious conservatives is that the majority of 400,000 frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization are unused and unwanted and will ultimately be discarded. Yet, according to those promoting the sanctity- of-life view, the federal restriction means these embryos also must go untouched.
It's an unnecessary ban. Even many conservatives opposed to abortion -- and more than 250 members of Congress -- have pushed for an end to the federal limits on this research, since the number of available stem-cell lines is so small that scientific experts have likened it to working with one hand tied behind their backs. There are fewer than 20 available stem-cell lines available for research under federally funded guidelines -- just a speck in a sea of potential discoveries.
Proposition 71, the statewide initiative, is the frustrated response from families affected by the misguided research regulations, who find it unconscionable that better treatments or possible cures for diabetes and Parkinson's disease are being impeded by ideology.
While there have been recent suggestions that the benefits for Alzheimer's from stem-cell research may be limited because of the way the disease attacks the brain, such daunting challenges are the reason we do, or least should do, medical and scientific research. Several family members besides my father will have a memory of how he celebrated his 89th birthday last week, a milestone that should provide strong medicine for all those crying out for expanding research. For, by the time they turn 85, 1 in 2 Americans has Alzheimer's, a frighteningly high percentage. It seems rather cruel that the single biggest risk factor for the disease is age itself.
But nothing is as merciless as losing the memories of your own life. My father doesn't remember that his parents survived the destruction of their North Beach home in the 1906 earthquake and has little recollection of growing up on Angel's Island and taking a ferryboat to Sherman Elementary School in Cow Hollow each day.
He can see pictures of his 1937 University of San Francisco basketball team, where he starred (he is one of two living members). (And which is why the Army made sure he got assigned to the Presidio during World War II, so he could serve as captain and coach of the Sixth Army squad.) A few stops after he left the military, he ended up in the car business. If you bought an Oldsmobile in San Francisco between 1950 and 1985, there's a high likelihood you knew my father or one of the ever-growing clan of Garcias.
The irony might be lost on him now, but if I were able to explain the importance of stem-cell research to him, this might be one of the few elections in which my father could be persuaded to not vote the GOP ticket.