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Hadassah Launches Lobbying Effort to Promote Stem Cell Legislation

February 23, 2005
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When Cynthia Kramer lobbied her state legislator in Missouri last year on the potential benefits of stem cell research, she wasn’t just talking theory. “I was basically pleading for my life there,” said Kramer, 40, who has a rare form of lymphoma.

She told him she believed such research could lead to better treatments and maybe even a cure. But the response she got during last year’s exchange in Jefferson City, the state capital, was discouraging.

“You know what he said? ‘I’m sure it’s a bitter pill for you to swallow, but we have to follow our constituents and do what’s right.’ “

His message to her was clear, she said. Because he was a person of faith, he could not support stem cell research. Catholic bishops in the state had been calling legislators that day, urging them to criminalize it.

“He was saying, ‘Mine trumps yours,’ ” she said. “I couldn’t help feeling immoral because I didn’t agree with this position.”

Kramer plans to be back in Jefferson City next week, one of scores of Hadassah members who will be storming their state capitals to lobby for legislation allowing stem cell research and stem cell funding initiatives.

With federal funding for stem cell research ground to a halt, states have become the new battleground for the research that potentially could lead to treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease.

More than a dozen states are considering legislation that would support stem cell research.

Several other states, including Missouri, are looking at legislation to restrict the research severely.

The discussions increasingly are taking on a religious tone, and Jewish groups are working to highlight a religious perspective that supports research on cells taken from embryos once they have left a woman’s body.

At the same time, the issue has become a rare unifier in the Jewish community, with Jews across the religious streams promoting the use of stem cell research.

“The Jewish perception is that anything that can be used for potentially saving a human life should not only be allowed but aggressively pursued,” said Rabbi Edward Reichman, a physician and an Orthodox scholar on Jewish medical ethics in New York.

Critics of the research tend to be Christian conservatives, who view embryos as human life and believe that extracting stem cells from them and manipulating them to create different blood and tissue cells destroys life.

They also argue that harvesting adult stem cells could lead to human cloning, which has been banned by most state legislatures.

“The opposition is being driven by folks with a religious agenda,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

The Reform group is also focusing on the issue. It plans to bring actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, to speak to a center gathering on the subject in Washington next month.

“It is important for policymakers to understand this isn’t an issue where religion is on one side and people who do not believe are on the other,” Pelavin said.

Kramer, a mother of two, speaks on the subject like an expert, and has testified in front of her state legislature.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in February 2002, when she was participating in the Hadassah Leadership Academy, a two-year training program for regional lay leaders.

After a year and a half in remission, the cancer returned in November 2003, and she tried a stem-cell transfer from her own harvested cells last year. But because her cells are not trained to fight the cancer, it quickly returned.

The other option is to use stem cells from an unrelated donor, but she has opted against it, saying the side effects caused by rejection are too much to take, and she is worried about her two young children seeing her suffer.

“The hope is that I could grow my own stem cells, but they be genetically manipulated to fight my cancer,” she said. “And my body wouldn’t reject them, because they were mine.”

A procedure scientists are working to develop, somatic cell nuclear transfer, could do just that. An egg is fertilized with the genetic material of a somatic cell, like a hair or skin cell. Researchers consider the procedure the next wave of research because it can produce stem cells that are genetic matches of the donor patient.

But implanting that fertilized egg would produce a clone of the person who donated the somatic cell. The procedure is how Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997.

Even as attention shifts to the states, lawmakers in both houses of the U.S. Congress introduced the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act last week. It would override President Bush’s ruling on stem cell research and expand the number of stem cell lines available for federal research.

Bush’s decision to ban all federal funding for new stem cell lines after 2001 was not binding on states. Some states, including California and New Jersey, have earmarked funding for the research, and have been rewarded with an influx of research dollars and top scientists. Other states want to replicate that, and have introduced bills to support and fund the research.

“Scientists are going to go where the money is,” said Paula Hollinger, a Maryland state senator and Hadassah member, who introduced legislation to set up a legal framework for stem cell research and underwrite funding for it.

But Christian conservatives are pushing hard against it. They view embryos, including the egg fertilized with a somatic cell instead of a sperm cell, as life, and are lobbying state legislators to ban the procedures, which would restrict both public and private research.

Jewish law has consistently said embryos and fetuses in utero do not have status as full human life.

Some Orthodox groups, which more often side with Christian conservatives than liberal Jewish groups, have advocated for stem cell research.

In a meeting between House Democratic leaders and Jewish leaders last year, Nathan Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, turned the conversation to stem cell research to highlight an issue about which all Jewish groups agree.

“The potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life from the traditional Jewish perspective,” the Orthodox Union and its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Council of America, said in a letter to Bush in 2001.

“Moreover, our rabbinic authorities inform us that an isolated fertilized egg does not enjoy the full status of personhood and its attendant protections.”

Hadassah, a longtime proponent of stem cell research in America and its hospitals in Israel, where pioneering stem cell research is done, hopes that its members ultimately will meet with legislators in all 50 states throughout the spring.

“The future of stem cell research lies in the states,” said Shelley Klein, Hadassah’s director of advocacy. “We hope to lobby where this is really happening.”

Kramer says her goal right now is not to save her own life, but to use her story to show an alternative moral approach.

“Disease takes your dignity,” she said. “For me to have to beg senators for my life is distasteful.”

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