“Human embryo-destroying stem-cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable, it is now demonstrably unnecessary,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, 56, born in Rahway, N.J.
“Dah dah dah, weeeeooot,” said Will Keating, 3/4 of a year old, born, at first, as a two-cell embryo frozen in a test tube.
“… induced pluripotent stem cells,” the congressman said. “Aaaaeiiiyaaaaa,” Will said, blowing a small spit bubble.
While Mr. Smith, co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, was the headliner at a press conference called on Monday to denounce the president’s new executive order allowing federal money to fund embryonic stem-cell research, young Will stole the show.
The pudgy, red-headed boy is a “snowflake baby,” born from a cryogenically frozen embryo left over from in vitro fertilization but then transferred to Cheri and Bill Keating, of Ellicott City, Md., via embryo adoption. Embryos are destroyed when stem cells are extracted for research.
The event was decidedly downscale from the one held just hours before at the White House. There, Mr. Obama read a carefully crafted speech from a teleprompter, surrounded in the ornate East Room by hundreds of applauding supporters and doctors who believe expanding research could lead to cure for ailments ranging from multiple sclerosis to paralysis.
Mr. Smith’s, however, took place at the corner of Independence and New Jersey avenues on the concrete Cannon House Office Building terrace, where he battled to hold his three-page statement in the 30-mile-hour gusting wind, which at one point sent an empty baby carriage veering crazily toward the podium.
“Mr. Obama is way behind the times. Making Americans pay for embryo-destroying stem-cell research is not change we can believe in. Far from it. It is politics!” the diminutive congressman said, but the rest of his sentence was drown out, not by applause but by a blast of wind.
Reporters and photographers, by a two-to-one margin, outnumbered the dozen or so officials and “snowflake” parents and children. Notebooks in hand, the reporters strained to hear the New Jersey lawmaker hold court on the complicated and confusing topic.
Stem cells, often called pluripotent cells, can grow into any of the roughly 200 types of cells that make up the body’s tissues. Some doctors say cells taken by destroying embryos, so-called totipotent cells, have a greater ability to diversify into any type of cell and thus are preferable.
But embryonic stem cells are highly unpredictable, early research shows. For instance, Israeli doctors reported this month that experimental injections of fetal stem cells into a boy suffering from a lethal brain disease triggered tumors in the boy’s brain and spinal cord.
As alternatives to embryonic stem cells, Mr. Smith listed advancement after advancement using adult and umbilical-cord-blood stem cells, which doctors say are far less likely to morph into tumors or be rejected by the patient. Noting that doctors have turned human skin cells into “what appear to be embryonic stem cells,” the lawmaker said, “the momentum has decisively and irrevocably swung to noncontroversial stem-cell research.”
“Patients with diseases, including leukemia, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, sickle-cell anemia and dozens of other maladies have significantly benefited from adult cell transfers,” he said.
“Aha!” Will said at precisely this moment, but he had been busy gnawing on his fist, so he likely was not responding to the exciting medical advancements in the field.
The press conference’s principals also praised research into umbilical-cord-blood stem cells. Taken shortly after a baby is born, the blood offers pluripotent stem cells that have been proven medically effective.
Take Stephen Sprague, who identifies himself on his business card as “Cord Blood Crusader.” He received a cord-blood transfer in 1997 after he was diagnosed with leukemia, and he was cured of the disease.
Or Cathy Pell. Her five-year-old daughter, Abby, was born with brain damage, but the damage was reduced by injections of her own cord blood. “I describe cord blood as liquid gold,” Mrs. Pell said. “In this economy, you couldn’t buy it from me for a million dollars, so I hate to see federal money go where they haven’t had success.”
Then Mrs. Keating, handing off young Will to her husband, spoke of her “snowflake” children.
“Our two youngest children, Maggie and Will, started their journey to our family as frozen two-celled embryos. They were given their inalienable rights of life and had a chance to grow into babies and, eventually, into the adult people they were intended to become,” she said.
Will, for once, didn’t say a thing. He just smiled a toothless smile.
• E-mail Joe Curl at firstname.lastname@example.org.