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Misplaced Sympathy: Reagan's Death Stirs Stem-Cell Debate

6/21/2004 - 5:00 AM PST

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Medical Research vs. Moral Principles

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 21, 2004 (Zenit) - Proponents of embryonic stem cell research took advantage of the publicity surrounding the death of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan to press for an end to restrictions on federal funding for the controversial work.

Fifty-eight members of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to President George Bush asking him to lift limits imposed almost three years ago, the Washington Post reported June 8.

On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush ordered the National Institutes of Health not to fund research on stem cells taken from embryos destroyed after that date. Subsequently, the NIH identified a number of stem cell lines that met the guidelines and could receive government funding.

Last month, 206 members of the U.S. House sent a similar request to Bush, noted the Washington Post. As well, Nancy Reagan has spoken out in support of stem cell research. "This issue is especially poignant given President Reagan's passing," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and one of five organizers behind the Senate letter. "Embryonic stem cell research might hold the key to a cure for Alzheimer's and other terrible diseases."

Numerous editorials took up the plea, linking the need for federal funding to Reagan's death. A New York Times editorial on June 8 expressed the hope that Nancy Reagan would renew her efforts to lift all restrictions on stem cell research, "perhaps the most promising route toward cures for Alzheimer's and other devastating ailments."

A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial on June 9 declared that the Bush restrictions are "a terrible waste of human cells that could be used to save human lives." And on June 8 a USA Today editorial declared: "Freeing researchers from needless restrictions that stymie progress would be a fitting way to remember and honor Ronald Reagan."

Opinion articles also echoed the demand for federal funding. "Stem cells, the building blocks of the body, are indeed the great hope of scientists who think these can be coaxed into cell types that repair organs or treat diseases such as Alzheimer's," commented columnist Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe on June 9.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle of June 7, John Curtis affirmed that Christian beliefs are behind Bush's decision to limit government funding. "Blocking embryonic stem cell research crosses a dangerous line, allowing the religious community to veto scientific research," he argued.

The issue also promises to become part of presidential election campaign. The as-yet unofficial Democratic Party presidential candidate, John Kerry, called on President Bush to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, Reuters reported June 12.

A White House spokesman replied, saying that Bush "continues to believe strongly that we should not cross a fundamental moral line by funding or encouraging the destruction of human embryos."

Not the answer for Alzheimer's

On June 10 a Washington Post article poured cold water on the claims that stem cells could provide a cure for Alzheimer's. "I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer's brains by putting in stem cells is small," said stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

"The Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions," observed the article.

Objections were also raised to using Reagan's name to justify stem cell research. "Ronald Reagan's record reveals that no issue was of greater importance to him than the dignity and sanctity of all human life," commented William Clark, national security adviser and secretary of the interior under Reagan, in the New York Times on June 11.

Clark also argued that Reagan would also have been unlikely to favor using government funds for such research. "He understood the significance of putting the imprimatur of the nation, through public financing, behind questionable research," said Clark. In fact, he noted that Reagan put in place a de facto ban on federal funding of embryo research during his presidency.

Fetal farming

Debra Saunders, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 9, pointed out that the lobby in favor of stem cells have "framed the issue as a battle between enlightened scientists, who only want to help Christopher Reeve to walk and Alzheimer's patients to stay sharp, and nasty religious Luddites -- headed by President Bush -- who care more about zygotes than people."

But the issue is more complex, Saunders pointed out. As well as asking for the current restrictions to be ...

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