Westward Whoa!

Stem cell restrictions could send Texas Medical Center researchers fleeing to California

The inning ends and he jogs into the chain-link dugout, against the flow of his teammates taking the field. "Riley, you all right?" a coach asks. The ten-year-old silently unzips a black medical kit, pricks his arm twice with a needle and watches it pool with blood. He might need to adjust the computer -- an insulin pump -- but the other team's batter is already swinging. The coach says, "Riley, you've got to move."

Riley knows that juvenile diabetes is a constant pain in the ass, the back, the arm and everywhere else he has to prick himself. That could change, of course, now that doctors are working on a cure for the disease using embryonic stem cells.

His mom, Amy Boswell, knows such a cure could extend her son's life and make both of theirs easier. But that doesn't matter to her. "If they found a cure from embryonic stem cells," says the former nurse, "Riley would never be cured. We just wouldn't do it.

Cloning might one day cure the diabetes of Riley 
Boswell (left), but his mother, Amy (right), says she'd 
refuse that cure.
Josh Harkinson
Cloning might one day cure the diabetes of Riley Boswell (left), but his mother, Amy (right), says she'd refuse that cure.

"I feel like human life begins at conception," explains Boswell, 33. "And every human life is precious and unique and should be respected, should be protected, should be dignified, basically."

Despite its black-and-white simplicity, or because of it, Boswell's view is gaining increasing support. Texas Right to Life, a group lobbying hard against embryonic stem cell research, has more than tripled its membership in the past ten years.

The group last year helped push through two pro-life-oriented state bills: The Prenatal Protection Act recognizes a state crime against two people if a pregnant woman is attacked, and the Woman's Right to Know Act requires that women receive an informational pamphlet 24 hours before having an abortion. Thanks to ousters of incumbents last year in the wake of Republican-led redistricting, "We have a more pro-life legislature than we've ever had in 130 years," says Stacey Emick, Texas Right to Life's legislative director. "So this is a big time for us."

Of course, states such as Texas can't simply outlaw abortion -- that would violate the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision -- so pro-life groups focus on related hot-button topics. The Terri Schiavo "natural death" case is one example. Embryonic stem cell research is another. "Our mission is to protect innocent human life from fertilization until natural death," Emick says, "so embryos that are…subjects of experimental research and would die because of that fall under our purview of protecting human life."

Emick and Boswell oppose embryonic stem cell research in both of its forms.

The traditional form involves extracting stem cells from a fertilized egg -- usually only a few days old -- which can be obtained, for example, from an in-vitro fertilization clinic with the consent of the parents. There are an estimated 400,000 such embryos in frozen storage, many of which never will be implanted in the womb of the original mother and will be destroyed if they are not used for research.

The newer form, therapeutic cloning, involves the same methods used to clone Dolly the sheep, but cut off at a much earlier stage. In a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists take a nucleus from almost any cell in the human body, implant it into a human egg, grow the resulting cloned embryo for a few days in a petri dish and harvest its cells.

Texas Right to Life conducted a poll in 2002 that found that 69 percent of respondents in Texas opposed medical research using therapeutic cloning. Some national polls, however, show mild overall support for the practice. Even so, five states have banned it.

Last session, Texas nearly joined them when Representative Phil King, a Weatherford Republican, proposed an anti-cloning bill. Although the original bill never went up for a vote -- a fact his allies attribute to the flight of the Democrats to New Mexico -- King attached the proposal late at night to a funding measure for higher education. It came within ten votes of passing. Both sides say it failed only because legislators hesitated to vote for something they didn't understand.

Stem cell debate this session kicked off with an overflowing, 13-hour hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. King showed up with his laptop and beamed onto the wall a drawing of petri dishes filled with identical googling babies. "I think this is really a crossroads time for Texas," he said. "I think the public wants a cloning ban."

However, King's own anti-cloning bill failed to reach the House floor. An identical bill, pushed by GOP Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria, is still pending. (Three other Senate bills would protect therapeutic cloning.)

One King comrade at the recent hearing was Amy Boswell, who carted her son Riley up to the podium and testified in favor of the ban, eliciting audible gasps from diabetics in the audience. Boswell is no stranger to martyrdom.

She joined an e-mail group composed of moms of diabetics and was flamed so viciously for her sentiments that she dropped out. But the Catholic mother of six also is capable of defending her Christlike stance without invoking God -- a trait typical of the state's evolving pro-life movement. Texas Right to Life is "nonreligious, nonsectarian and nonpolitical," Emick says. True, the group's office is plastered with crosses, but they're only "decoration for whatever employees use the office space."

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