WASHINGTON -- After the second presidential debate, in which John Kerry used the word ``plan" 24 times, I said on television that Kerry has a plan for everything except curing psoriasis. I should have known there is no parodying Kerry's pandering. It turned out days later that the Kerry campaign has a plan -- nay, a promise -- to cure paralysis. What is the plan? Vote for Kerry.
I'm not making this up. I couldn't. This is John Edwards on Monday at a rally in Newton, Iowa: ``If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.''
In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately raising for personal gain false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.
Where does one begin to deconstruct this outrage?
First, the inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edwards did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous.
Second, if the cure for spinal cord injury comes, we have no idea where it will come from. There are many lines of inquiry. Stem cell research is just one of many possibilities, and a very speculative one at that. For 30 years I have heard promises of miracle cures for paralysis (including my own, suffered as a medical student). The last fad, fetal tissue transplants, was thought to be a sure thing. Nothing came of it.
As a doctor by training, I've known better than to believe the hype -- and have tried in my own counseling of the newly spinal-cord injured to place the possibility of cure in abeyance. I advise instead to concentrate on making a life (and a very good life it can be) with the hand one is dealt. The greatest enemy of this advice has been the snake-oil salesmen promising a miracle around the corner. I never expected a candidate for vice president to be one of them.
Third, the implication that Christopher Reeve was prevented from getting out of his wheelchair by the Bush stem cell policies is a travesty.
Bush is the first president to approve federal funding for stem cell research. There are 22 lines of stem cells now available, up from one just two years ago. As Dr. Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, has written, there are 3,500 shipments of stem cells waiting for anybody who wants them.
Edwards and Kerry constantly talk of a Bush ``ban'' on stem cell research. This is false. There is no ban. You want to study stem cells? You get them from the companies that have the cells and apply to the National Institutes of Health for the federal funding.
In his Aug. 7 radio address to the nation, John Kerry referred not once but four times to the ``ban'' on stem cell research instituted by Bush. At the time, Christopher Reeve was alive, so not available for posthumous exploitation. But Ronald Reagan was available, having recently died of Alzheimer's.
So what does Kerry do? He begins his radio address with the disgraceful claim that the stem cell ``ban'' is standing in the way of an Alzheimer's cure.
This is an outright lie. The President's Council on Bioethics, on which I sit, had one of the world's foremost experts on Alzheimer's, Dr. Dennis Selkoe from Harvard, give us a lecture on the newest and most promising approaches to solving the Alzheimer's mystery. Selkoe reported remarkable progress in biochemically clearing the ``plaque'' deposits in the brain that lead to Alzheimer's. He ended his presentation without the phrase ``stem cells'' having crossed his lips.
So much for the miracle cure. Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at NIH, has admitted publicly that stem cells as an Alzheimer's cure are a fiction, but that ``people need a fairy tale.'' Kerry and Edwards certainly do. They are shamelessly exploiting this fairy tale, having no doubt been told by their pollsters that stem cells play well politically for them.
Politicians have long promised a chicken in every pot. It is part of the game. It is one thing to promise ethanol subsidies here, dairy price controls there. But to exploit the desperate hopes of desperate people with the promise of Christ-like cures is beyond the pale.
There is no apologizing for Edwards' remark. It is too revealing. There is absolutely nothing the man will not say to get elected.