The Accidental Stem-Cell Advocate

The debate over research on embryonic stem cells can seem pretty abstract, so if you want to get a real feel for the effect of President Bush’s ban on the use of federal money for studies of new stem-cell lines see if you can catch a screening of a documentary called The Accidental Advocate. It was produced and directed by Jessica Gerstle, who was an Emmy Award-winning journalist at Dateline NBC for 12 years and who is—more relevantly—the daughter of Dr. Claude Gerstle, an ophthalmologist who was paralyzed from the neck down after a bicycle accident that, as he says wonderingly in the film, left him with nary a broken bone nor a scratch on his helmet. "Merely" a quadriplegic.

The film chronicles Dr. Gerstle’s wheelchair-bound odyssey to learn whether stem cell research offers him any hope of walking again and, more poignantly, his encounters with politicians who believe it is more ethical to flush unwanted embryos (from IVF clinics) down the sink rather than allow scientists to isolate stem cells from these balls of cells and use them to produce lines of cells that hold therapeutic promise. It’s fascinating, in a cringe-inducing sort of way, to see Dr. Gerstle’s Senate-hallway encounter with Sen. Sam Brownback, who believes that embracing “the culture of life” requires unwanted IVF embryos to be discarded rather than used to help people such as Dr. Gerstle, is priceless. (Just to be clear, while there have been several score “snowflake babies” born from frozen embryos “adopted” by couples after the biological parents no longer needed them, an estimated 20,000 frozen embryos are discarded every year.)

In contrast, Sen. Orin Hatch, the Utah Republican who broke with his party and president to support allowing federal dollars to be used for research on frozen IVF embryos that are headed for the waste bin, graciously sits down with Dr. Gerstle to offer his support.

When Dr. Gerstle is not an advocate—and you marvel at his stamina and dedication, and his willingness to travel the country when he can barely raise himself from his wheelchair to get into an airplane seat—he is a quadriplegic. The film shows his agonizing physical therapy, as he tries to take a few steps using a walker, and his painstaking efforts to do something as simple as lift a sandwich to his lips. As his wife reminds us, it’s the little things—like not being able to brush your own teeth—that can be so wearing on paralyzed patients. As for Dr. Gerstle, he says that what he wants more than anything is to be able to once again hug his wife of 38 years.

This Thursday, Nov. 6, those of you in Salt Lake City can see it at Leonardo, 209 East 500 South, at 7 p.m. The University of Utah geneticist Mario Capecchi will speak.. The film was shown at both the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions this summer, and you can Google the film for other screenings.