Thoughts on Christopher Reeve’s death

The passing of Superman illustrates three problems in public policy.

With the death of Christopher Reeve, the first political observation is his support of stem cell research and the wrong position of President George W. Bush on this issue. To recap:

Bush issued a ban on using federal funds to develop new stem cell cultures or to conduct any research done with stem cell lines developed after Aug. 9, 2001. He called this decision a “fundamental moral line.” As with the faulty use of information that did not prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the same year and that led us into the Iraq war, Bush’s decision was again based on faulty background information on the number of stem cell lines available for research and the usefulness of those lines for human therapy.

Reputable scientists throughout the world believe that stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, will be the next frontier of biomedical research. This is also the hope that Reeve had. The University is now moving ahead to advance this field with private funding.

In the Minnesota Legislature this announcement provoked threats from Republican legislators to defund the University. In place of a substantive policy discussion, conservative opponents have preferred to intimidate and threaten the University with criminal penalties. They claim, as Rep. Tim Wilkins, R-Eagan, said, “there is no compromise on embryonic stem cell research, it is either conducted or its not.”

The U.S. House Republicans unanimously rejected an amendment requesting that the Department of Health “consider” drafting legislation related to regulation of in-vitro fertilization.

Even though the language was based on the very conservative recommendation from the President’s Council on Bioethics, Republicans voted against it because it might allow stem cell research. The stem cell connection? It limited scientific research on human embryos to no more than 10 to 14 days after fertilization – stem cells are isolated at five days.

There is another aspect to be considered. Reeve died from an infection. Infections, particularly in hospitals, have become a more devastating problem because of the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in

disease-causing bacteria, which is increasing because of the misuse of antibiotics, both in medicine and in agriculture.

The use of these lifesaving medicines for commercial purposes in raising animals is under increasing attack. During the last legislative session, I offered an amendment to the agriculture finance bill to curtail the practice of the general use of antibiotics in animal food.

Almost all Republicans voted against it. I intend to introduce a similar bill in the next session.

Finally, in another direction, I am having a bill drafted, from a model suggested by the Consumers’ Union, now law in some states, requiring hospitals and outpatient surgical centers to report acquired infections to the commissioner of health. This would be a first step to attacking this problem, increasingly prevalent in hospitals today.

The death of Reeve brings all three issues into focus. To move forward we will need a president (and a Legislature) who believes in scientific progress rather than conservative ideology.

Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is a state representative. Send comments to [email protected]