Emma Alafe- Final: Dr. Alafe’s Congressional Plea for the Funding of Stem Cell Research

Good morning men and women of the Congress,

My name is Dr. Emmanuela Alafe. I am a neurosurgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital, with a specialization in neurodegenerative disorders. I have been practicing in New York for 18 years and I am extremely excited to expand my ideologies beyond the city. Within these 18 years, I have had the opportunity to encounter numerous patients of differing nationalities, ethnicities, age and gender groups, religious affiliations, and social class. New York city has a large Jewish population, so it is no surprise that a great percentage of the patients I see are in fact Jewish. I am a Catholic, and I am as passionate about my status as a Catholic as much as I am about my status as a medical professional. I have utilized my hospital role as a way to understand the “mind of the patient”. Now you all may be wondering why I am bringing religious knives to a political gun fight but we know all too well that there are 2 aspects of every person’s identity that greatly encroach upon on their decision-making: religious affiliation and political party identification, and the two are far from mutually exclusive. The 2016 election is a large-scale example that although there is a separation of church and state, religion is a huge part of the lives of many in the U.S. And as can be seen by the demographics of people that voted for our current U.S. president, religion has the ability to align individuals into the same ideology and is used as a tool of political, social, and moral reasoning. So I come before you all today to make a plea for the funding of stem cell research, also known as therapeutic cloning. You all may be concerned with the political backlash of approving funding because of the social connotation associated with the term “cloning”. Pop culture has taken the term and manifested it into an egregious Frankenstienien process, creating a misnomer of its actuality. I am a medical professional and I am sure you and all your colleagues are very intelligent, but allow me to inform you all in my area of expertise as you will soon inform me in yours. There are three main subject matters that I would like you all to understand: the pathway of neurodegenerative disorders, religion, and the ability of cloning to contribute to treatment and its place in the moral scope of our United States. Working at Mt. Sinai I have been exposed to so many new ideals. As a result, my perspective has shifted into one that incorporates both Catholic and Jewish moral definitions, thus has affected my stance on bioethics and the need for the American government, a body of people governing one of the most diverse nations on Earth, to incorporate these differing perspectives as well.

Firstly, what is a neurodegenerative disorder? Well, I will tell you what it is not as of now: curable. To put it simply, our brains are made up of billions of nerve cells that allow us to check the mail, drive a car, deliver a speech, sign a funding mandate, change the world, etc. Every move we make, every thought we think, every breath we take, is because of the firing of neurons, which is why the brain is the center of our beings. The brain is extraordinary. But when things go wrong, the result is unfortunately just as extraordinary. Parkinson’s: a neurodegenerative disorder caused by the death of neurons in the Substantia Nigra; Alzheimer’s: a neurodegenerative disorder caused by the loss of neurons in the cerebral cortex; Schizophrenia: a neurodegenerative disorder caused by the loss of hippocampal volume and incorrectly firing neurons; Dementia, Prion disease, Huntington’s disease, the list goes on and on. As I said before, they are incurable. Don’t get me wrong there is treatment, but these treatments are largely based on feeding the brain the neurotransmitters that would be released by normal functioning neurons, but the results are a cure of the symptoms, not the disease itself and often are an incomplete treatment of the symptoms at that. We have advanced years beyond the scope of what could have been predicted a 100 years ago, and as we are faced with some of the most life altering diseases, the only answer we can provide is one that slaps a band-aid onto a continuously bleeding and infected bullet hole. Now if I told you that I had a busted tire on my car, a broken bike chain, a blown out light bulb, you would tell me to replace it. Then my car would run smoothly, my bike wouldn’t jam up, and my lamp would shine brighter than ever. So here is a patient with a problem in which a part of the brain is not functioning properly, what would you tell me as a doctor to do to that part of a person’s brain? Ah-hah, replace it. Now of course it is not as simple as a bike chain or a tire, nor do we even know how well replacing it would be, but with some research already done, the answer appears more promising than not.

I will try to level with you all and your livelihood as politicians, and of course the political dangers of drastic decision making. Many see cloning and other reproductive technologies as immoral. Even the President’s council on Bioethics believed that such an act will have negative implications for humanity. But there is mass misinformation about cloning ingrained into our American society. But it is your job to deliver the truth and correct that. The same way famous Greek thinker Pythagoras challenged the popular belief that the Earth was flat – was there some pushback, of course, but was he correct, of course. Let us look at society, and our derivation of morality. Many cognitive psychologists argue that one’s moral compass is directed by brain functioning/ genes. In the world of natural and social science we believe that genes affect behavior, but it is the environment that interacts with genes in order to determine behavior and personality, and as a result, one’s moral compass. Environment and culture are as strongly bonded as two social determinants can be. And what is one main characteristic that divides and defines cultures? Religion.

The Catholic Church has expressed its views on reproductive technologies in the famous Donum Vitae: “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation”. In it, the Church’s claims are built on Genesis, known to all Christians, Catholics, and Jews as “the Beginning”. You all may be familiar with some of its words but I will gladly reiterate some of the main ideas: God said let there be light, God created Adam/man from dust, God gave Adam/man dominion over the Earth, God said to be fruitful and multiply, and God created man in His own image. What causes a lot of division amongst religions and creates thousands of denominations are the differing interpretations of fundamental scriptures like Genesis. We Catholics believe that God gave man the Gift of life and that Adam’s (man’s) dominion over the Earth gives us the freedom to take control of the Earth and all that inhabits it, this includes reproductive technology (Catholic Church, 141). But it is up to man to know where the line is and to not cross it. This however is where myself and the Catholic Church diverge: they believe that using these reproductive tools are an imposition of the Godliness of God, and is an attempt for man to elevate himself to a level of God, because of the ability of reproductive technology to allow man to create man (Catholic Church, 141). I have had the opportunity to converse with many Jewish patients and catch glimpse of their ideology. I was intrigued by their Jewish traditions and philosophy. Upon further research, I discovered ideals unbeknownst to me, and have found myself viewing biblical scripture through a different lens than what is stated in Donum Vitae. This is not a plea for Catholics and Christians to abandon their ideology but more so a plea for openness of thought and philosophy. Jewish law is unopposed to cloning. This is because of the Jewish interpretation of foundational scripture. Their belief is that God wants man to be enthralled into a partnership with him, and change the Earth towards a more positive beacon of Godliness and rid ourselves of the darkness that plagues imperfect human existence (Breitowitz, 326). Now how can the two find common ground?

The Catholic Church says that although we have this ordained dominion, we must know our limits, alluding to a disapproval of stem cell research. Catholics take what Jewish people may deem the backseat approach to life (Breitowitz, 326). In the Catholic way, because morality is based on the idea that God has created us the way God wants us to be, it is no surprise that meddling with creation with a powerful tool such as the technologies man has made today, would be seen as a blasphemous act, punishable by hell fire. The Jewish view says that we are imperfect beings working with God to become better as a people, so it is also no surprise here that utilizing a tool such as reproductive technology, may be seen as an act in God’s will. Once again, let us compromise and think about this philosophically. God created Adam in a “perfect world”- the Garden of Eden. There was no sin, no disease, no evil. In this perfect world, I would strongly and only support the Catholic view. If the world is without flaw, then yes, God wants us to recognize this gift and take a backseat to the comfort and holiness of thy environment created by thy Creator. But, according to the Bible, the violation of God’s commands by indulging in an impure apple, corrupted the holiness of the world and banished man from the perfect sanctity of life (Genesis, Chapter 3). With this post- Garden of Eden realization, I can see the support for the Jewish view, needing to collaborate with God, and heal the world as best as man can do, leaning on the strength and blessings of the Father while sorting through the rubble to build a better Earth than the one we are currently living in. So, to compile this fundamental and foundational story, and these 2 views, we must recognize that we are living in a post- Garden of Eden society, one that is full of death, famine, and disease, so the Jewish view is more applicable. This does not discredit the Catholic view, because as I said before, the Catholic view is one that creates or rather attempts to recreate this perfect beacon of human existence, thus would be the justification of their view of morality, being that of a pre-sin era. The Donum Vitae is a theological piece that would have been equivalent to the U.S. Constitution, had man never been locked out of the Garden. But since we are not living in a perfect world, I believe it is reasonable to try and move towards that, and adopting tools that will help us get there, such as reducing the rampant nature of disease, is a step in the right direction.

The President’s Council on Bioethics is the mouthpiece of medical morality for the President. They are concerned with the moral implications that cloning will have on our society and go on to speak of the possibilities of eugenics and therapeutic cloning being a gateway to reproductive cloning (Kass, 77). But of course there are risks, and those who will want to misuse the technology. However, those people and risks are exceptions, and the exception should not be the rule. Place regulations on cloning, in the same way we place regulations on alcohol, prescription drugs, driving- all of which have caused death and misfortune for many that abuse them. But those people do not represent the whole, and thus should not spoil it for the rest of the law- abiding citizens, as they obviously do not because all three are still legal. Furthermore, the risks involved with all 3 do not discredit alcohol’s power as a social tool, prescription drugs power as a medical treatment tool, or driving’s power as a transportation tool for getting people to and from work and contributing to our bustling economy. So, therapeutic cloning’s power as a lifesaving tool should not be discredited either. One of the Catholic Church’s major arguments against stem cell research is the imminent death that many, many embryos face during the process. This is seen as a disrespect to human life and condemned by the Catholic Church (Catholic Church, 147-148). Now, I’ll pose a rhetorical question to you all: is an embryo to be considered a human life? Your answer to that question will greatly affect how you view stem cell research. But here is where you have to abandon your personal view. And although Catholics would answer yes, the Donum Vitae is not the law of the land. In the Supreme Court, as I am sure you are all aware of, there is such thing called Stare Decisis, which means that the decisions made by the Supreme Court on a current case, will be a precedent to the decision made in future cases. I bring this up because, the rules should not change just because the procedure is different. If under U.S. law abortion is legal and it involves death to developing human lives, why is it not then permissible for stem cell research, which also involves the death of developing human lives. The Council on Bioethics, a government appointed group recognizes this and thus do not completely regard the embryo as equivalent to a fully developed human life, calling it an “intermediate moral status” (Kass, 142).

We are an evolving society. To pose an analogy, think about how many Christians and Catholics get on planes every day, but the Christians and Catholics in the time of the Wright Brothers might have said “humans shouldn’t fly because it is unnatural, if God wanted us to fly he would have given man wings”. So are they contradicting their religious beliefs, are they engaging in an immoral act by booking a flight? No. They recognize that we are in a time where technology allows us to make our lives better and more productive. Think about all the children air lifted to Emergency care by helicopter, or the ability of the U.S. to fly the two, now alive, ebola patients overseas. The point is, technologies such as planes and reproductive technology is not an effort for man to turn their backs on morality, but more so an effort to improve the lives of man. So, allow us to educate the public of the possibilities of cloning/stem cell research. Is it not an American right to be informed? This nation was founded on a Republic and a union between government and “We the People”, so it is an injustice to the governed to withhold knowledge based on the supposed ideals of the governing. But how are we to educate the public if we are not completely educated ourselves? Delving into this research can drastically change the ability to treat some of the grimmest of diseases. Give way to the undiscovered, and allow us to break new grounds and change the face of medicine forever. The answer to the neurodegenerative diseases that have plagued the meaning of existence for many, young and old, may be right in front of us. So please do not deny us the answer. You all fund programs and profit from the taxation of commodities that kill us every single day, so why not fund something that has the possibility to save our lives?

Thank You.

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