I’d never taken the news personally, that is until President Bush’s announcement in August 2001 that he was suspending federal funding and participation in embryonic stem-cell research. I knew less about the issue then than I do now. And most recently, his veto last week of the latest bill to expand the range of federally funded stem-cell research has given me a personal sense of mission to combat the dangerous rise of non-science and misguided ethics plaguing our country.
You could say that my interest is highly personal. In November 2000, a tree fell on my back and head. Long story. I was in a coma for a month, not expected to survive. I awoke to paraplegia, paralyzed from the chest down.
I was 47 at the time, lucky to have lived long enough to take the larger view of my situation; lucky enough also to have experienced, for the first time in my life, a sense of mission. Furiously researching my condition, I learned of the potential of stem cells, primarily embryonic stem cells, to provide cures for millions of people suffering from a wide array of debilitating disorders. Nine months later, the President issued his executive order freezing federal involvement in the research.
I was born into the Jewish tradition. My parents both survived the Holocaust: My mother left Germany at age 9, in 1934; My late father had his entire family obliterated by the Nazis and their cohorts. He spent his war years on the run, hiding in open fields, empty barns, in forests, and the homes of the occasional good souls who would admit him to their homes for a meal or a night’s sleep in a bed.
My father was a joyous man. That’s how I remember him. He spoke very little of his war years, but was not a person to conceal it completely. The Holocaust, nevertheless, was a constant presence in our home. My father spoke little of his murdered family, but I would try to imagine them nonetheless. All I could evoke, however, was the image of chalk lines on a sidewalk, outlines of murder victims. My childhood was replete with murderous fantasies of massacring Germans so that my parents could have their childhoods back.
A few years ago, I decided that it was time to confront my Holocaust demons. In 1993, I took a trip to Washington to visit the then-new Holocaust Museum to see what I could learn and feel to at least lessen the degree to which the Holocaust plagued me.
I was stoic throughout the visit until I came upon a room filled with old shoes. Just that--thousands and thousands of old shoes. Seeing those shoes broke me. I cried for two hours that felt like two days. The numbers, the sheer enormity of the numbers, is what drove the point of the horror home for me. Oddly, at that moment, my sense of victimhood evaporated. There was something about the sheer numbers, the enormous mass, the depersonalization of the slaughter that made me grateful to have life and the capability for self-expression.
I’ll never walk again. I don’t believe that stem-cell therapies will be developed in my lifetime to the extent that this will be possible. I’ve come to terms with that and the myriad of disadvantages, difficulties, and humiliation that accompany my condition. I’m 52 now, and I’ve had a great life. But the thought of young people who have a real chance for recovery, their hopes stymied by a simple-minded attempt to stop the march of time is simply too much for me to bear.
I’m a witness to this attempt, a victim of it. But I can no longer remain silent. My mission, finally acquired, is to help those with real hope, to use my experience to do so. It’s what gives my life meaning.
But here is what touches the core of my being: 400,000 embryos are discarded each year by fertility clinics. The shoe room at the Holocaust Museum might have had one one-hundredth that number of shoes on display. Whether or not one believes that these embryos are viable human beings, 400,000 of these entities, for lack of a better word, are extinguished for eternity. They could be giving life to the dying and the suffering.
I can’t help but think about the shoes at the Holocaust Museum when I think about these embryos, these bits of life, trashed and incinerated, stymied in realizing their potential. They have become weapons of detritus in the persistent victimization of the sick and helpless. At the end of the day, we’re all pawns in the war on abortion.