Tough Cell

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, June 10, 2004)


As her husband gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of his life, Nancy Reagan became a vocal advocate for embryonic stem-cell research, a stance that put her squarely at odds with the Bush administration and the Christian right on the issue. Conservatives argue that the research, which necessarily involves the destruction of human embryos, is equivalent to abortion, but the scientific consensus is that, as stem cells might hold the key to fighting diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, the research is not only morally justified, but imperative. In a speech barely a month before her husband’s death, Mrs. Reagan made her most public appeal yet for research:

“I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this.”

To find out how, she should refer her question to George W. Bush. The president has been at pains to draw parallels between himself and Ronald Reagan. But he still refuses to answer the Reagan family’s request to modify the limitations on stem-cell research he created by executive order in the early days of his administration. In August 2001, Bush restricted research to 78 existing stem-cell lines — the majority of which, researchers say, are damaged and unusable.

The debate over embryonic stem-cells — which are considered more valuable to research than other stem cells because they are less developed and can still grow into other cells — drew substantial news coverage in the summer of 2001, making it one of the first major controversies of Bush’s term. By announcing his decision in a rare televised address, and by borrowing his emotive rhetoric from the abortion debate — Bush underscored the issue’s importance to his party’s right flank:

“I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world. And while we’re all hopeful about the potential of this research, no one can be certain that the science will live up to the hope it has generated.”

But Nancy Reagan’s public appeal for more research places Bush in a difficult position. Sympathy following her husband’s death, combined with his popularity among Republicans, gives Mrs. Reagan a powerful voice on the subject. To counteract that advantage, the White House sent Laura Bush – whose father died of Alzheimer’s in 1997 – on the talk show circuit Wednesday: “We have to be really careful between what we want to do for science and what we should do ethically and the stem cell issue is certainly one of those issues that we need to treat very carefully.”

But Bush might need to be equally careful with a planned tribute to Ronald Reagan at the August GOP Convention in New York, where Nancy Reagan would logically feature as a prominent speaker (though her precise role, if any, has not yet been announced). The New York Daily News speculates that Mrs. Reagan’s presence would elicit further debate about stem cells. That could potentially drive a wedge between the party’s moderates and its far right – as the gay marriage debate recently threatened to do – instead of creating party unity at the convention. “This could be a serious headache for Bush,” American Enterprise Institute analyst Norm Ornstein told the paper. “Bush would prefer not to have this issue highlighted.”

In the meantime, the issue is being highlighted by members of Congress. After Reagan’s death, 58 senators and 206 House members wrote the president to request expansion of stem-cell research. The majority of senators signed the request, including 43 Democrats, independent Jim Jeffords, and 14 Republicans. The petitioners include staunch anti-abortionists like Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah):

“Maybe one of the small blessings that will come from [Reagan’s] passing will be a greater opportunity for Nancy to work on this issue, which of course means so much to her,” Hatch said. “I believe that it’s going to be pretty tough for anybody not to have empathy for her feelings on this issue.”

As the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested in its Wednesday editorial, encouraging stem-cell research would allow Bush to honor Reagan properly.

“While others talk about putting his visage on dimes or $10 bills, a more significant legacy would be this: President Bush should ease the damaging limits he put on human embyronic stem-cell research, which could someday lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s and other dire diseases. It’s what Reagan’s widow Nancy wants; it’s what numerous scientists and a growing number of elected officials want.”

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, columnist Carol Marin pointed out that if Bush was willing to sacrifice some embryonic stem cells in 2001 – and many of the frozen embryos not used for research are destroyed regardless – he should be willing to allow further research in the interest of saving lives:

“He should approve broader federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. And he should do it right now. Leadership means looking your political base straight in the eye and telling the truth. In this case, the president needs to sit down with members of the religious right and talk to them about stem cells in “sanctity-of-life” terms. He needs to tell them that the number of lives waiting to be saved really does matter. Abortion, the lightning rod and the litmus test of all things conservative, is being used and abused in this debate.

“…The extraction kills the embryo. Bush believes that is immoral and federal funds should not be used in this kind of research. It is, in essence, the abortion argument. Here’s where I get confused. If the president really believes that the use of embryos is unethical and immoral, how could he in Solomon-like fashion have made the compromise he made in 2001? … What if some new treatment option results from the use of the “approved” embryonic material, if a life is someday saved because, in the president’s view, another life has been lost? Is the use of that federally funded discovery immoral too?”

Thanks in large part to Nancy Reagan, the stem-cell debate has been reopened in a bipartisan spirit. Now we’ll see how Bush truly honors Ronald Reagan, his self-proclaimed hero.

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