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Obama Gets Stem Cell Research Right

We can finally dream of incurable diseases being cured. Welcome, at last, to the 21st century.

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Parkinson's disease affects half a million Americans, with 50,000 new cases reported every year. The four primary symptoms are tremor or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk, slowness of movement and/or impaired balance and coordination. Patients can have difficulty walking, talking or doing other simple tasks. This chronic disease persists over a long period and is progressive, meaning symptoms grow worse over time. Other symptoms accompanying Parkinson's disease include depression or other emotional changes, difficulty swallowing and chewing, blurred or slurring speech, urinary problems or constipation, and sleep problems.

Multiple sclerosis affects approximately 400,000 Americans, with roughly 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year. MS patients suffer from a wide variety of neurological symptoms, including changed sensations, weakness of muscles, spasms, difficulty with moving, coordination and balance, problems in speech, swallowing, vision, fatigue, acute and/or chronic pain, and bladder and bowel control difficulties. Mental and emotional impairment and depression are also common. Multiple sclerosis relapses or attacks are unpredictable, and can occur without warning or obvious inciting factors.

ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, affects as many as 30,000 Americans. Patients with ALS will eventually not be able to stand, walk or use their hands and arms. Difficulty swallowing and chewing impair the patient's ability to eat normally and increase the risk of choking. ALS usually does not affect the mental faculties, so patients are vividly aware of their loss of function and can become anxious and depressed. As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles weaken, breathing difficulties increase. ALS patients must eventually decide whether to have a tracheostomy and long-term mechanical ventilation. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or pneumonia, not the disease itself.

Approximately 5.3 million Americans suffer from some form of brain injury. Cancer is responsible for 25 percent of all deaths in America. Half of all men and one-third of all women in America will develop cancer during their lifetimes. More than half a million Americans suffer from blindness. Hundreds of millions of people in every nation on Earth suffer from all these conditions.

Stem cell research has great potential to treat, or even cure, many of these maladies, and many more besides. The story behind why America has not pursued stem cell research with the level of vigor the possibilities would seem to demand is long and politically convoluted, but basically boils down to this: a small but vocal minority in the country believe stem cell research is baby butchery akin to legalized abortion, and for the last eight years a president who agreed, or simply didn't want to tick that small minority off, was in office. A lot of other politicians who should have known better heard words like "snowflake babies" and "abortion" and ran like rabbits, and thus America's pursuit of this astonishing medical breakthrough has been stuck in the mud.

Not for much longer.

Millions of Americans and hundreds of millions more worldwide who have been afflicted by these terrible maladies can actually begin to imagine what once seemed impossible: getting well. They can dream of the incurable becoming cured. They can hope.

Welcome, at last, to the 21st century.

William Rivers Pitt is the author of "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" and "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence."

 
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