Playing Doctor, Playing God.

Jack Kessler wants his daughter Allison to walk again.

Jack Kessler wants his daughter Allison to walk again. Doug Melton wants to cure his son Sam’s diabetes. Nancy Reagan wants to spare families the pain of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease. Kessler, a Northwestern neurologist, Melton, a Harvard biologist, and the former first lady are some of the most passionate advocates for embryonic stem cell research, which they believe offers hope for millions of people.

What stands in the way, they say, are federal rules imposed by President Bush in 2001, which severely limit federal funding of stem cell research. The rules were put in place because harvesting stem cells destroys embryos, something the president believes immoral. Others see it as just as immoral not to pursue avenues that could lead to significant advances against diseases that ravage millions.

The stem cell debate, especially since the death of Ronald Reagan, has been framed in Galileo-like terms: the president and his pro-life, Religious Right supporters standing in the way of scientific progress. But this leaves some vital questions unasked and unanswered.

THE FIRST IS THIS: Are stem cells really a miracle cure that is just around the corner? For Alzheimer’s disease, the answer is probably "no," several researchers told Rick Weiss of The Washington Post. Ronald D.G. McKay, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, admitted that the Alzheimer’s claim, while doubtful, makes good PR. "To start with, people need a fairy tale," he said. "Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand."

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Sojourners Magazine September 2004
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