The debate over stem cells has been noisy. The raised voices of politicians berating an established anti-science administration. The protests of ordinary people holding signs declaring murder. The phone calls by patient advocates to friends and strangers for their cause.
The first featured Dr. Jack Kessler, an established neuroscientist at Northwestern University, who changed the direction of his research after a skiing accident left his daughter Allison paralyzed from the waist down. In interviews he describes the months spent educating himself on stem cell research, building a laboratory and hiring staff to focus specifically on how to use the controversial practice to regrow neuronal connections in the backbone of mammals. The film then does an excellent job of bringing viewers into the laboratory and explaining in plain English why and how the research is conducted.
What Maria Finitzo’s film does more beautifully, however, is show how his work has a clear agenda. Dr. Kessler is depicted as a man who out of love for his daughter becomes obsessed with fixing her. <!–[if !vml]–><!–[endif]–>”He wishes he can speed up the process,” Allison says of her father’s research. He admits she gets mad at him for it. Through his actions, the viewer learns the long-term effects of the accident aren’t just her disability; Dr. Kessler is using science to fulfill a personal quest. “There’s this dagger that doesn’t go away,” he says.
The second narrative features Carrie Kaufman, a 22-year-old college student who became paralyzed from the waist down after a diving accident. The viewer comes to know Ms. Kaufman through the eyes of her parents. A woman who will never again play the piano and who is not asking for miracles from science, just the ability to move her right hand again. In the most moving scene of the film, she convinces her father to allow her to dorm at DePaul University, where she was accepted to study psychology. He tries to persuade her out of it as tears form in his eyes, the camera revealing a quieter toll from her injury. The stem cell issue isn’t just about repairing broken spines; it’s about broken hearts.
The film on the whole avoids the political debate by allowing ethicists from both sides to comment, but it is hard to ignore the hope in the eyes of Dr. Kessler who is clear where he stands: “I’m a physician. I absolutely reject anybody who tells me it’s wrong to alleviate suffering.”