Victory in stem cell battle sweet for DeGette

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

As U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, of Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, watched President Barack Obama sign an executive order lifting the ban on embryonic stem-cell research on Monday, March 9, the Colorado Democrat was overwhelmed by a sense of victory in a hard-fought battle.

Stem cell research has become a personal cause for DeGette, whose daughter may benefit from stem-cell therapy for her diabetes. The Denver Democrat continued to fight for full federal funding for embryonic stem cell research after two bills she sponsored and pushed through Congress were vetoed by President George W. Bush. Last August, she released a book on the subject — Sex, Science and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason.

“Over 10 years of work trying to get sensible stem-cell policy, and, literally, with the stroke of a pen, it happened,” DeGette said.

Obama’s penstrokes reversed Bush’s 2001 ban on limited federal finding for embryonic stem-cell research. The new president expressed hope that the United States can now resume its long-stalled progress.

“From life-saving vaccines, to pioneering cancer treatments, to the sequencing of the human genome — that is the story of scientific progress in America,” Obama said at the signing.

“When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.”

One such country is Costa Rica, and that’s where Jennifer Blankenship, of Lakewood, went. Blankenship said she exhausted all treatment for her multiple sclerosis available to her in the United States — including chemotherapy — before leaving the country in search of stem-cell therapy.

“I was able to move my toes for the first times in years, having been confined to a wheelchair permanently for the past two years. I could even raise my hand above my head,” said Blankenship as she enthused about her progress with stem-cell treatment. “I was moved to tears when President Obama reversed the order.”

In a conference call with reporters, DeGette explained that the executive order is just a first step. She noted that Congress is moving toward passage of bipartisan legislation she is co-sponsoring with U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., which will codify the executive order into law.

“Finally, after eight years of roadblocks, millions of patients and their families now have hope for a cure,” DeGette said. “Embryonic stem-cell research holds great promise for alleviating the suffering of more than 100 million American patients who are living with devastating diseases — from Parkinson’s, to spinal cord injuries, to diabetes.”

In addition to hope, however, the executive order has stirred a heated moral and political debate.

The order states the embryos used in stem-cell research ought to be those that otherwise would be slated for destruction. These embryos are left over after couples go through infertility treatments and are often discarded.

Proper consent from the parents has to be obtained before stem cells are extracted from embryos and used for research purposes.

“This is an action of someone who either does not value human life, or is certain that there is no human life in unborn babies,” said Colorado Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, referring to Obama.

Colorado Right to Life told The Colorado Statesman that embryonic stem-cell research is wrong because “it is wrong to kill a child.”

Bob Enyart, spokesman for CRTL, said, “It is not right to kill kids to benefit other people. And this is why we are moving toward personhood, to protect all kids from embryonic research.”

The bishops of the Colorado Catholic Archdiocese also issued a statement opposing the executive order.

“Respect for all human life — including human embryos — should guide all scientific research involving human subjects, as well as the legislative and executive branches of government that decide the funding of medical research,” it said.

But after years of proposed bipartisan legislation, which was met by vetoes from former President Bush in 2006 and 2007, embryonic stem-cell research seems to be back on track in the United States.

“Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident,” Obama said. “They result from painstaking and costly research; from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit; and from a government willing to support that work.”

Advocates for embryonic stem-cell research say Monday was a step forward in the scientific landscape for the United States. Advocates are hoping for more results similar to Blankenship’s.

“Innovation, research and scientific study are the hallmarks of American ingenuity, and President Obama’s executive order is a call to action that will create hope for millions of people,” said Gov. Bill Ritter.

DeGette called March 9 a “gratifying day for the millions of patients who could potentially benefit from this research.”

“I am encouraged that President Obama has taken an important first step — one that is based on science, not just politics,” DeGette said.

Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, also believes in embryonic stem-cell research and said she would rather see these cells be put to good use than be discarded.

“I think there is so much good to come from this research because it has the potential to save lives and improve the quality of lives for people with some serious conditions,” Boyd said. “The same people who object to (embryonic stem-cells) being used, I would bet would not be happy if they were thrown way, so I agree that we should use them for research.”

Blankenship said she’s very hopeful for the future of stem-cell research and says Obama’s actions offer a new “ray of hope” for her future.

“I am starting to save again to go back and have more stem-cell treatments,” Blankenship said, adding that she hopes soon she won’t have to travel out of the country to do so.

“I am hoping to be able to walk again one day because I want so badly to be independent so I don’t have to go into a nursing home. I want to be able to do all of the things other people take for granted.”

Beth@coloradostatesman.com