By Tom Still
MADISON – During in the Battle of Britain in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised the outnumbered pilots who defended the skies against Nazi air power by saying, “Never in the field in human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
If Churchill was around to describe the July 19th delivery of 1,400 used syringes to the Capitol office of Assembly Speaker John Gard, he might have said, “Never in the field of politics were so many stereotypes and misperceptions reinforced for so many by so few.”
In case you missed the story when it broke last week, a Door County woman whose 12-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes (often called “juvenile diabetes”) somehow persuaded Gov. Jim Doyle’s staff to deliver 1,400 used needles, capped and bagged, to Gard’s office. Why? Gard supported a ban on the cloning of human stem cells for research purposes, and Elizabeth Kastner of Fish Creek believes his opposition to cloning is closing a possible avenue of help for her daughter, Isabel.
Although the governor’s office at least phoned ahead before “needling” the speaker, he was not amused. The Republican leader from Peshtigo called the needle delivery inappropriate because it put the health of Capitol staffers and cleaning crews at risk. Used syringes are considered dangerous because they can transmit diseases such as hepatitis B or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Capitol police were called to remove the needles, and Kastner will be sent the bill.
It’s basically a “two-day story,” in press parlance, because no one was harmed, Gov. Jim Doyle later agreed his staff shouldn’t have done it, and Gard isn’t dwelling on the incident. Still, the episode unnecessarily reinforced a few stereotypes and, as a result, did little to help the cause of promoting stem cell research.
The health-care profession has been working for decades to persuade its own workers and members of the public to stay away from used needles and other so-called “medical waste” so it can be disposed of properly. This bag of needles managed to travel all the way from Door County to inside the Capitol, being handled by who-knows-how-many people along the way. Even if Gard’s office was warned, you can’t blame them for being a little squeamish. Doesn’t anyone remember the envelopes filled with anthrax in Washington, D.C.?
Some people will wrongly conclude the needles were dangerous because they were used by a diabetic. Diabetes is not a communicable disease. It’s a condition that affects millions of Americans, many of them children, but it cannot be spread from one person to another. The danger in used needles is from the unknown: Might those needles carry hepatitis B or HIV?
Others who followed this story might conclude that stem cell therapies could lead to cures for diabetes and other diseases tomorrow, if only the state Legislature would allow therapeutic cloning of stem cells. That’s not exactly true, either. While human embryonic stem cell research (pioneered at the UW-Madison) holds enormous long-term potential, very few scientists are ready to predict the day when treatments for diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other chronic diseases may be available. And, as much as it makes sense to allow therapeutic cloning of stem cells, no UW-Madison scientist has plans to do so.
Unfortunately, it may take years before stem cell research can help people such as Isabel Kastner. But every day that research proceeds is a day closer to when she won’t need to inject insulin to survive.
That point was probably missed in this story. Frustration is growing among people who suffer from diseases that could be targets of stem cell research. Those people are having trouble understanding why policymakers seem to value them less than they do donated research embryos that otherwise would have been tossed by fertilization clinics.
Delivering a bag of used syringes to a public office building isn’t the way to influence skeptics, and it undermines the need for a civil debate. Still, many people who could someday benefit from stem cell research are asking: Why is science being held back by politics?