Thursday, October 26, 2006


Celebrities often support causes. They do this in three ways. The classic way is for a celebrity to become interested in a disease and to raise money for it. Jerry Lewis is an example of this, raising millions each year to help research MS. Others are victims of a disease and offer themselves as examples of why you should be generous or change your behavior. Before he died Yul Brynner did a public service spot saying warning that smoking killed him so you should stop while you can.

Then there are celebrities who have medical problems and want Democrats elected so that the government will find a cure for the disease that is killing or crippling them. Chris Reeve was an example of this. He made it very clear that he wanted a cure for himself. Never mind that most people with comparable spinal injuries would not be able to walk again, even if their spines were cured. Reeve could afford the physical therapy needed to keep his body from atrophying.

This leads to a recent dust-up between Michael J. Fox and Rush Limbaugh. Fox has been appearing in ads in favor of Democrats because they will support embryonic stem cell research. In the ads, Fox shows all the symptoms of Parkinson's disease which he has been fighting for years. Limbaugh made the news after suggesting that Fox may have been exaggerating his disease. From the reaction, Rush would have been better drowning puppies on live TV.

The issue is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it is made out to be. For one thing, Rush may have been right. In his autobiography, Fox says that he was not taking his medication when he testified before Congress so that his Parkinson's would be more obvious. If he did it once he might do it again. Fox appeared on Boston Legal this season without any tremors.

But that is really beside the point. There are bigger issues. The first is that, unlike Jerry Lewis, Fox is not willing to ask for your money. He wants the government to take it in the form of taxpayer-funded grants. This goes beyond the normal appeal of "If you feel sorry for me then give generously," and raises it to "If you feel sorry for me them make everyone give generously."

Second, he is not lobbying Congress, he is trying to change the controlling party. Stem Cell research may be an over-riding issue for Fox but for most voters it comes after the economy, Iraq, terrorism, immigration, health care, the deficit, and a host of other issues.

Then there is the fact that embryonic stem cell research is not only legal, but government-funded already. Researchers want more funding and more lines of cells which is different from the message that Fox is giving. For that matter, not all of the candidates he has supported have voted in favor of stem cell research. There is the blanket assumption that Democrats are for it and Republicans are against it.

I will not even go into the moral issues of embryonic stem cell research. I am against it for other reasons.

The thing is that embryonic stem cells will not live up to their promises. They can't. They have been brought out as a literal magic bullet that will cure nearly everything. Someone told Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox that stem cells will cure them. They believed the promises because they are too close to the problem and are willing to grasp at straws.

There are three major obstacles for the stem cell researchers to overcome. The first is getting the cells to grow differentiated cells. If you want to fix someone's spine, you have to grow nerve tissue, not just stem cells. The second is getting the cells to grow in the right place. The final problem is getting them to stop growing. This is the big one. Right now all indications are that use of stem cells will result in uncontrolled cancerous growths.

No one is positive that these obstacles can be overcome. Many researchers are downright pessimistic. Even the most optimistic ones doubt that Parkinson's can be cured through stem cells. Chris Reeve's spinal injury was simple compared to the wide-spread damage brought on by Parkinson's. The same is true for Alzheimer's. Other therapies have a lot more promise and don't involve changing the government.

This brings me to the biggest problem with celebrity causes. Being an actor does not make you an expert but it lets you imitate one. Even having a disease does not give you the knowledge that your doctor has.

It is too bad about Michael J. Fox and I wish that he did not have Parkinson's but I will not let sympathy for an actor change my vote.

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