A new documentary feature just released in New York and set to be released in Los Angeles on June 10 is going to cause major waves across the country. The feature length documentary ‘The God Cells’ by filmmaker Eric Merola (‘Burzynski: Cancer is Serious Business’ part I & II, ‘Second Opinion’) is set to add another controversial voice to the already highly controversial and divisive topic around fetal tissue and stem cells.
In the summer of 2015 a series of undercover videos filmed at Planned Parenthood clinics were released, reportedly showing clinicians discussing the sale of fetal tissue procured from abortion procedures for a profit. It turned a hot topic into a firestorm, which has been raging well into 2016. The conversation about championing the right to life was given a major boost by this controversy, as the pro choice and pro life debates continued.
Just when you thought the media had covered every aspect of this issue, along comes ‘The God Cells’ which will give an entirely new perspective on the fetal tissue conversation, but not in the way you think. This film documents a number of people who are living with a variety of serious and incurable diseases, however there is one type of medication that is helping them live a steady, healthy life – fetal stem cell injections.
This investigation follows people who have sought this therapy abroad (as it is not offered or allowed in the US), while exploring the religious and regulatory roadblocks hindering its market approval at home. Originally harvested by abortions, Fetal Stem Cells are arguably the most contested and controversial form of stem cell therapy to date. Not only does this technology face enormous religious opposition, but commercial and regulatory agencies wish to slow down the approval process for fetal stem cells due to profit and market reasons, creating an atmosphere for a seemingly insurmountable dilemma.
In the interest of exploring and furthering the conversation around fetal tissue through an entirely different lens that we are used to seeing from the perspective of reproductive rights, we spoke with writer/director/producer Eric Merola to get an insight into his process, what he wants audiences to learn, and what is it about fetal stem cell research that we are not being told or shown.
What made you want to make a documentary about Stem Cells, such a controversial topic?
I enjoy tackling topics that haven’t yet been tackled. All my previous work as a documentarian has been within the realm of science and medicine, and stem cells seemed like a challenging topic.
What is the significance of the title ‘The God Cells’?
After much deliberation of what to title the project, this title has always been rattling around in my brain. Since stem cells are just biology, they are technically doing “God’s Work”, that is if one believes that God is responsible for biology. For those who do not believe in God, it also reminds me of “The God Particle” for similar reasons.
In a nutshell, the title just made sense. It is provocative and appropriate.
You have made a number of documentaries focusing on healthcare and medical topics, why is this important to you?
I always enjoyed viewing documentaries that explored how scientific progress and innovation is often stifled due to the profit system, which inspired me to make my own films of this genre. Often the general public is willing to except this as an unfortunate reality, but many don’t find it as easy to believe when it comes to scientific innovations that effect the health care industry. Sadly the health care industry is equally as susceptible to fraud or corruption as any other industry due to the need to preserve monetary profits.
Also, since the mainstream media is beholden to their pharmaceutical sponsors, the likelihood of getting an objective story about these subjects to the general public is small. Documentary films have become, in my opinion, the new mainstream media.
In ‘The God Cells’ we learn about the 4 different kinds of stem cells and why one is more controversial than the others. What do you hope audiences will learn from this?
According to what I learned on this journey, fetal stem cells are the only stem cell types where you get the unadulterated building blocks of our nervous and immune systems. All stem cells must spontaneously “transform” into the different cell types in our bodies to be effective, but fetal stem cells are essentially already halfway to the finish line by providing pristine neuronal (brain) cells and pristine immune cells (from the liver that will eventually become the body’s bone marrow).
Mainly, since the average person doesn’t understand what stem cells are, much less the differences between their types, it was important to try to place things in perspective and give the audience a brief overview.
Best example: to this day, embryonic and fetal stem cells are used interchangeably. But they aren’t the same. Embryonic stem cells come from 5-day-old embryos, while fetal stem cells come from a early developed fetus. They just aren’t remotely the same.
This film comes at a very timely moment in our political landscape when there is an increased focus on abortion and fetal tissue research due to those leaked Planned Parenthood videos. How do you hope ‘The God Cells’ will add an amplify the medical aspect of this topic, rather than a religious or political one?
This was all by accident, while still in production the big Planned Parenthood debacle occurred in 2015. It was the first time “fetal stem cells” had really ever been discussed in the media.
It will be very interesting to see how ‘The God Cells’ plays its part in this. There are still massive hurdles to overcome for fetal stem cells to reach the mainstream, as CIRM (California Institute For Regenerative Medicine) pointed out, we are still decades away from any sort of FDA-approval on these stem cell types.
Each person’s story in the film is mind blowing. People living with Cystic Fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease and more, are able to live normal healthy lives with the use of fetal stem cell injections. What do you hope audiences will learn from hearing from these everyday people?
When doing these types of stories, and following everyday people one thing that is hard to convey is that the patient is dealing with two very difficult issues: No. 1 is their disease. No. 2 is the resistance and skepticism from their friends, family, and doctors for choosing to opt for such an “out-of-the-box” therapy, in Tijuana Mexico no less.
I suppose it will allow the audience to know that “you” or “your loved one” can have access to this technology as long as scientists are willing to set up shop outside of the USA to offer it.
It’s important to note that not everyone was “cured”. I observed that the earlier fetal stem cells intervened, the better rate of success. For example, a Parkinson’s patient diagnosed 20 years ago getting fetal stem cells for the first time had a much less chance of recovery – while a Parkinson’s patient diagnosed only a few years ago had a higher chance. This of course could make the argument of how important it is to embrace this technology now.
Films have the power to change minds, legislation and start movements. What do you hope will be changed after people view your documentary?
I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I have no hope in the establishment doing anything about this technology other than try to scramble to smear and debunk it. I have seen far too many life-saving and game-changing technologies covered-up and squandered due to what a sizable threat they are to the profits of the industry.
On the flip side however, this film can serve as a powerful tool of information and empowerment to allow the public to be made aware that it exists. The biggest thing about fetal stem cells vs. a “patented proprietary invention” owned by a company or individual scientist is this: fetal stem cells are just biology. Anyone with the proper resources can provide them. No individual company or person can or will ever own the rights to them. They are just you and me. Going back to the film’s title, ‘The God Cells’, since these cells are made up of you and me, and whatever definition the individual has on what ‘God’ is, most can agree that their definition of ‘God’ is responsible for all living things on earth. Fetal Stem Cells are a part of that.
This is the polar opposite paradigm the industry and establishment wants unleashed. These cells can be provided in a back of a car, or a boat or airplane in international space, or in a country where the government allows it to be done legally.
How does the issue of stem cell research fit into the discussion around abortion and reproductive rights?
The issue of abortion is so polarized that people will continue to believe what they want to believe. I have already received hate mail claiming that women will begin lining up to have an abortion just so they can donate their cells. This is preposterous. With 40 million abortions per year, and with all of these cells being harvested in the Republic of Georgia where the average woman has between 3 and 4 abortions in her lifetime – it only makes sense to utilize this incredible resource.
The issue of abortion is more used as a political tool than any true care for “humanity”. People are okay with sending “innocent adults” off to die for all sorts of reasons… but if a woman chooses to have an abortion, heaven forbid. We are overpopulated as it is, and denying a woman her rights to abort a child is an action of inhumane bigotry and only burdens our society more.
Do you foresee the FDA or the American government starting to make better accommodations for stem cell research in the future?
Nope. There is far too much money to lose if they do. One of the things I am most proud of with this project was the cooperation of CIRM (The California Institute For Regenerative Medicine). As they said, they are the largest publicly funded stem cell agency on earth, with huge money and huge powerful people at the helm. Yet, the FDA, Congress, and the Pharmaceutical industry is doing everything in its power to slow CIRM down.
As with all paradigm shifts and the innovators who pioneer them, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk — all major shifts come from outside of the establishment, not from within it. The establishment is then forced to catch up. Bottom line: fetal stem cells allow the individual to take control, not the establishment. Anyone can provide them, and anyone can get them. You just have to know where and how to go about it.The establishment is designed to protect and preserve what has been ‘established’, not change it, hence its name.
A lot of the pro-life conversations relate to preventing abortion at any and all costs, but your film is profoundly presenting the issue of “pro life” in a different perspective. What do you hope to challenge within the existing dogmatic pro life arguments and attitudes?
I interviewed many devout Christians for this film. They had zero issues with the source of the cells, since they saved their lives. You can’t really challenge people on this issue. The challenge or change of perspective of this issue needs to come from within the individual. Sadly many of these folks suffer from a dogmatic herd mentality and can’t truly think for themselves, and therefore will always blindly tow the line of their religion or political party. “Logic, reason, and rational discourse” go out the window on the issue of abortion.
Whether people like it or not, we will always have abortions. Why not utilize an already existing resource to help better shape humanity’s future?
To find out more about ‘The God Cells’ and find a screening near you, click here and follow Eric Merola on Twitter. To learn more about the fetal stem cell research being done and how the CIRM is working on making cures for major diseases, click here.