Who is Timothy J. Atchison?

12 04 2011

By: Natalie Shuster

Last week Timothy’s name swept headlines nationwide as information about this University of South Alabama’s nursing student, was released. Timothy, also known as T.J. was the first patient to receive a drug made from embryonic stem cells, after a car crash lead to a devastating spinal chord injury.

After remaining anonymous for six months, Timothy’s name was finally released to the public, leading to internet rumors and a whirlwind of media coverage. This stem cell injection was one of the first carefully deigned attempts to study the impacts of embryonic stem cell therapies within humans. If it is shown to have positive effects, the results of this study could have very strong implications for further funding and policy making around stem cell research.

According to Timothy and researchers at Geron and the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, it is too soon for scientists to know whether the injected cells are able to help repair damage after a spinal cord injury such as the one suffered in Timothy’s car crash.

Timothy is not unique in his plight. In America today, there are over 250,000 people living with spinal chord injuries. There is currently no cure for either of the two spinal cord injury classifications. Thus, the results of this experiment could be an important step towards finding one.

Embryonic stem cell research has been a highly debated topic over the past few decades. Reaching media salience during the Bush administration, the issue has fallen to the wayside since the Obama/McCain elections in 2008. Proponents of stem cell research have historically argued that increased research and the use of embryonic stem cells have the potential to replace damaged cells and cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, burns, or spinal cord problems like Timothy’s.  This communications frame of social progress and development is one often used by stem cell research supporters. It emphasizes our civic duty to support scientific inquiries that can eradicate diseases and positions the use of stem cells as a public health issue.

Conversely, opponents to stem cell research and the use of embryonic injections similar to those used on Timothy, would argue a morality component and the ethical concerns behind the use of embryonic stem cells. They would frame a debate against the use of this injection as the “destruction of life, of God’s creation” and the “equivalent to murder.” Right to life blogs have positioned Timothy’s treatment as an “ethically and medically dubious experiment using embryonic stem cells.”

Regardless, of one’s political and religious affiliation, all members of both political parties as well as those who citizens for and against embryonic stem cell use, will be actively watching the development and results of this experiment.

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What is the ban on abortions based on ethnicity or gender really about?

2 04 2011

By Karen Frantz

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

This week Arizona became the first state to outlaw abortions based on ethnicity or gender, and supporters and opponents of the ban are wrestling to control the frame of the debate. Is this ban about discrimination? Or is it about abortion? Whichever side sets the frame will likely have a marked influence on overall support for the ban.

The legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer this week, makes it a felony to knowingly terminate a pregnancy that was sought because of the race or sex of the fetus. Violators could face multiple years in prison, but the law only targets the doctors that perform abortions, not the women who seek them. It would not require patients to disclose why they are seeking an abortion.

Cynically speaking, the legislation could be a smart wedge-issue for social conservatives to use against progressives. The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances or in all cases, according to polls. But certainly there are the many exceptions, and abortions based on race and gender are likely two of them. For example, a 2006 Zogby poll found that 86 percent of Americans thought sex-selective abortions should be illegal.

Part of the reason there is less support for such abortions may be that it invokes in people not just a simple heuristic of abortion and whether it is acceptable or not, but also discrimination and whether it is acceptable or not. Therefore, those progressive individuals who view abortion as acceptable (within the frames of privacy and civil rights, as opposed to the opposing frame of religious morality) but view discrimination as unacceptable may experience some cognitive dissonance when confronted with the ban. Thus, they may choose to view the ban in terms of one heuristic over the other in an attempt to resolve that tension. The task then for conservatives is to persuade people to view the ban in terms of discrimination instead of abortion, hypothetically resulting in increased support.

It does seem that many proponents are mainly framing the ban accordingly, presumably hoping to sway some progressives to their side. For example, Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, who authored the legislation, said he introduced the bill to “take a stand against bigotry and prejudice.” Notably lacking from Montenegro, who is an evangelical pastor, were the common conservative arguments against abortion. In fact, he told Reuters that the ban was not about the legality of abortion itself, but instead was only meant to address sex and race discrimination.

However, many organizations that oppose the ban, such as Planned Parenthood, are framing it in terms of abortion rights. For example, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cynde Cerf said the bill was “nothing more than a way to further vilify women who seek abortion care in Arizona.” Another Planned Parenthood officer, Bryan Howard, also invoked the common pro-choice message that the decision to have an abortion is a private decision between a woman and her physician, partner and family.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood is not only invoking the abortion rights frame, but is also casting doubt on the appropriateness of the discrimination frame. “We don’t have evidence of these kinds of motives in the state,” said Howard, referring to the incidence of abortions sought due to race or gender.

Here is where Planned Parenthood has the facts on its side – in fact, there is little evidence that such abortions are a widespread problem in the United States, and certainly sex-selective abortions in particular occur here far less often than in countries like China. Although such facts are unlikely to persuade social conservatives that the ban is unneeded, they may be enough to persuade progressives to see the ban in terms of the abortion rights frame instead of the discrimination frame.

However, this may be an issue to watch, as there is evidence that the incidence of sex-selective abortions, although currently negligible, is creeping upwards among particular populations. For example, a 2008 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that in the U.S. there was some evidence of a skewed male to female ratio, favoring males, among the non-firstborn children of Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian parents. (In those populations, if the first child was a girl, the ratio of boy to girl for the second child was 1.17 to 1. And if the first two children were girls, the ratio of boy to girl for the third child was 1.5 to 1.)

Given that more sophisticated technology has made it far easier to determine the gender of a fetus early on in a pregnancy — at a time when abortions are more likely to occur, and are becoming less invasive for the mother and are less expensive — sex-selective abortions may become a more pressing issue than it was in the past. Thus progressives may find themselves needing to develop a new heuristic for such abortions, rather than relying on traditional abortion rights frames.

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Stem Cell Research Saves Lives…Of Cartoon Characters

29 03 2011

Popular adult cartoons, Family Guy and South Park, satirize the stem cell and abortion debates

By: Natalie Shuster

It is a miracle! After a stroke, caused from eating hundreds of burgers at McBurgertown, Family Guy star, Peter Griffin, was cured using stem cell research. And the most amazing part? According to Griffin it “only took five minutes. They injected me with a little bit of that fetal crap and I was better in no time!” (Season 6: Episode-McStroke)

Just weeks later, South Park resident, Kenny McCormick, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and told he only had weeks to live. The solution? Take a woman’s aborted fetus, transport it to a medical facility and use it for stem cell research (Season 5: Episode-Kenny Dies). Shortly after, Christopher Reeves also campaigned for stem cell research for the handicapped in the small town of South Park, Colorado. By cracking open fetuses and sucking out their juices, he was able to regain mobility, and even superpowers like the character he once portrayed, Superman (Season 7: Episode- Krazy Kripples).

These episodes of Family Guy and South Park serve not only as satirical commentaries on the stem cell debate but also to question the general public’s understanding of stem cell use and research. However, when viewing these shows it is important to ask, are these witty and comedic skits reflective of the general public’s lack of understanding? Do they provide the public with false and exaggerated information on the scientific benefits of stem cell research? Or do they help educate viewers to the issues at hand?

Science is often criticized for portraying negative stereotypes, depicting researchers as the “mad scientist,” or the new scientific discovery as a “monster” technology. Comedic shows generally exaggerate and inaccurately depict the implications of the true data. However, research has shown that the simple presentation of scientific information and demonstrations of the “system of science” actually helps to promote involvement and education about new technologies.

Multiple studies, such as those conducted on media attention and support for food biotechnology, have concluded that heavier viewers of television were generally more supportive of technology than those individuals who watched fewer programs. It is proposed that by simply viewing television programs, regardless of the factuality of the information or the depiction of the technology and scientists, viewers are given an underlying support for science. They are primed to be more receptive to the ideas of new innovations and technologies.

While a cartoon program may not affect all viewers in the same manner, the simple exposure to a new idea or technology has generally been viewed in a positive light by researchers.

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