It’s hard to miss Mr. Fox these days. The diminutive actor who runs the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has a new book in print and a television special airing on May 7, and he is doing endless interviews to promote his cause. His cause is to find a cure for Parkinson’s. He and his foundation have been indefatigable champions of the potential of human stem cells to treat this disease, and have distributed more than $140 million.
 
He has been a welcome guest on Oprah Winfrey’s television show for years, and to kick off his current publicity campaign he was on the Oprah show yet again. On the show with him was another of Oprah’s regulars, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a surgeon at Columbia University. A brief video clip shows Dr. Oz, with a cadaver’s brain in hand, telling Mr. Fox and Ms. Winfrey that “the stem cell debate is dead.”
 
What’s dead, he declared, is the notion that we might use stem cells taken from embryos to inject as a curative agent into brains afflicted by Parkinson’s. He told Fox that stem cell research in just the past year has leapt forward “by ten years.”  Why?  Because, he said, we now know how to take a bit of Mr. Fox’s skin and induce his skin cells “to go back in time” to become the kinds of cells that might be safely inserted into his brain to ameliorate his condition. Dr. Oz predicted that we are now “single digit years away” from such treatment. Benefits of this approach to therapy, he said, are a lowered risk of rejection (since the therapeutic material would be derived from the patient’s own tissue) and a lowered risk of engendering new disease (as injections of embryonic stem cells have been known to cause tumors and other uncontrollable side effects).
 
Dr. Oz, turning to the audience, also delivered a crucial piece of background information: “Embryonic stem cells come from embryos—like, all of us were made from embryos.” 
 
Pause for a moment to appreciate that Oprah’s show is said to have about 25 million viewers in the U.S. (and many more in a hundred other countries) and to have the highest share of daytime viewers among women aged 18 to 34.  Millions of women heard what the doctor said.
 
What he said wasn’t perfect, of course. To say “All of us were made from embryos” is rather like saying “All of us were made from five-year-olds.” It leaves room for someone to draw the phony inference that from an embryo one might “make” a variety of things, and among the possible products is “us.”  Better to have closed off that escape from logic by saying, simply, “What each one of us, is is a grown-up embryo.” Still, for daytime television, that’s pretty good work.
 
A month has gone by since that show aired. A search on the Fox Foundation’s web site yields no mention of Dr. Oz. The phrase “skin cells” does appear in a few postings, but there is a general insistence on the site that such research is fraught with obstacles. There is no sign from the Fox camp of a diminished commitment to the harvesting of cells from embryos.  If anything, it’s the opposite.
 
And yet, and yet . . . Here is the gutsy, talented, compassionate, hardworking Michael J. Fox, husband, father, and activist, a man with charm and brains, personable and humble. One has to imagine what a force for good he might be. When I saw the ubiquitous Mr. Fox again this week, in print, in an interview  in Good Housekeeping magazine (April 2009 ), I uttered spontaneously what I have come to call the Bernard Nathanson Prayer: O God, let this good man’s eyes be opened.
 
Good Housekeeping claims as many readers (25 million) as Oprah does viewers. Here, in part is what they read in the editor’s interview with Mr. Fox:

RE: What has being a dad taught you about coping with the disease and with life?

MJF: It has taught me that there is not one moment that is frozen in time. There is no better example than to watch four kids grow up. For instance, I’m not feeling particularly steady right now, but this is not going to last for more than a couple of minutes. Same with raising kids. There are no moments you have frozen in amber. It’s moving, it’s changing, so appreciate what’s good about right now and be ready for what’s next. 


I couldn’t help rewriting that exchange as it might come out after Fox’s conversion:
RE: What has being a dad taught you about coping with the disease and with life?

MJF: It has taught me that there are irrecoverable moments, moments that are frozen in time, moments that can never return. There is no better example than to watch four kids grow up and to think—these are my children, but when they were tiny they might have looked to someone like a potential harvest, like mere material—useful for a purpose, and disposable when used. There is no frozen embryo or other nascent human that should be destroyed for the benefit of those of us already here.  I know I’ve changed my mind, but learning where you’ve been wrong is one of life’s gifts. Life is moving, it’s changing, it asks us to appreciate what’s good about right now and to be ready for what’s next.

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