Documentary focuses on how stem cell issue divides the country


The upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival, November 13 – 23, will feature several films with special interest for the local Jewish community. Among these is the locally produced documentary, The Stem Cell Divide.

In 2006, science, religion, social issues and politics all converged around a ballot initiative in Missouri. The Stem Cell Divide follows events in Missouri from early 2005 to the 2006 election, as the state became the focus of national popular and media attention in the stem cell debate. Amendment 2, known as the Stem Cell Amendment, brought out opponents and supporters of embryonic stem cell research not just in Missouri but across the country.

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This documentary takes a neutral, journalistic rather than a biased approach in presenting the events and issues around the amendment and the topic of embryonic stem cell research, striving to present all sides of the issue fairly and equally.

The Stem Cell Divide will be shown Sunday, November 16 at 2 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater, on Delmar in the University City Loop. Barbara Langsam Shuman, Sharon Harris Pollack and Jill Mirowitz Mogil, who are all Jewish and have connections to the local community, co-produced and directed the film and will appear at the festival to introduce the film and take questions afterwards.

Among the well-known local figures that appear in the documentary are Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, M.D., professor at Washington University’s School of Medicine, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation, and her daughter Adina Talve-Goodman, a patient advocate for stem cell research.

The Stem Cell Divide begins with footage of election night 2006, going inside both sides’ campaign headquarters and including comments from each camp. This helps in setting the tone of a balanced presentation. The documentary then flashes back to January 2005, in the chamber of the Missouri Senate, with footage of State Senator Matt Bartle introducing legislation to, in essence, ban one of the most promising techniques of embryonic stem cell research, somatic cell nuclear transfer. The attempt ends up galvanizing both opponents and supporters of embryonic stem cell research into action.

As the documentary traces the thread of events on the political stage, it intersperses interviews with advocates on both sides of the issue, including clergy, patients, doctors, scientists, politicians and representatives from the array of organizations working for or against the amendment. The film discusses the moral arguments against the research, the science behind the issue, and touches on the potential of embryonic stem cells to cure diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and spinal cord injuries.

The Stem Cell Divide tends to present the various sides of the issue and opposing viewpoints in balanced pairs. A discussion by State Sen. Matt Bartle on objections to embryonic stem cell research are paired with an interview with scientist and medical doctor Steven Teitelbaum describing the basic science of embryonic stem cell research and SCNT. Likewise, opponent’s discussions of cloning are paired with scientific discussion of that topic. Leaders from the Catholic Church and other Christian groups present their arguments on when life begins, while a rabbi comments the traditional Jewish view of the subject.

Among the most compelling footage comes from patient advocates on both sides of the discussion speaking before the Missouri Senate. A woman paralyzed in a car accident argues against the research, while others argue in favor of it. Legislators grappling with understanding both the science and the moral arguments are also interviewed, and there is commentary and political analysis from reporters who cover the political scene in Jefferson City.

From a technical aspect, the documentary is unremarkable, basically concerned only with presenting interviews and information on the topic at hand. Unfortunately, the science is too lightly touched on, with only the most basic of descriptions of the principles, little on the critical difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells and no real discussion of why it holds such potential for cures of so many devastating diseases. The film has its main focus on the groups of people involved in the debate but in doing so misses a chance to educate on a difficult but important science issue.

The filmmakers’ impulse to present all sides of this still hotly debated issue is admirable but it also leaves the viewer with a sense of unease about re-starting this fiery argument. Still, the film is a worthy effort and worth the effort to see it.