Mon, Jun. 14, 2004
The White House said Monday it would not relax restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, despite calls to do so by Ronald Reagan's family and hundreds of members of Congress.
The statement, coming only days after former President Reagan's funeral, shows the political charge the issue holds as the elections draw nearer.
"The president came up with a policy that will allow us to explore the promise of stem-cell research and do so in a way that doesn't cross a certain moral threshold that he set," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "That is his position, and that remains his position."
The pronouncement comes amid a concerted push by research advocates to turn sympathy for Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, into stimulus for more-permissive stem-cell policies.
Stem cells are extraordinarily adaptable cells that can become any part of the human body and that, many scientists believe, could hold the clue to cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and diabetes.
"I think the greatest contribution we can make in the name of President Reagan is research into Alzheimer's ... and a commitment to stem-cell research," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Monday after meeting with researchers in Chicago. He's one of 58 senators who have written to the White House recently asking that it reconsider restrictive policies.
In the House of Representatives, 206 congressmen have signed a similar letter.
For the last week, patients and their families have been flooding Washington with e-mails and phone calls. This week, research advocates are launching a major petition drive, asking scientists, doctors, foundations, universities and patient groups to call on the government to permit more-extensive research.
"We won't give up," said Dan Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which is organizing the effort.
Restrictions limit federally funded stem-cell research to cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Of more than 70 lines allowed, only 10 are truly useful, scientists report. Bush set existing policies in a presidential order almost three years ago.
Conservatives, while grieving over Reagan's death, have remained unmoved in their conviction that research on stem cells derived from embryos is unacceptable ethically because it involves the destruction of a potential human life.
Increasingly, conservatives also argue that the promise of embryonic stem-cell research has not been realized and may be overstated.
"We've had more than 20 years of embryonic stem-cell research in mice, and we don't have a single cure," said Pia de Solenni, director of life and women's issues for the Family Resource Council.
"The president has shown his commitment to authentic science and the defense of human life," she added.
Bush can't afford to alienate this core, conservative base only months before the election, political commentators said. But he cannot appear insensitive to entreaties from Nancy Reagan, whose grief at her husband's death moved millions of people and who believes stem-cell research offers hope for cures to disease.
Whether conservative voters can be won over to Nancy Reagan's position is an open question. According to a March poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Civil Society Institute, 44 percent of conservatives think federal funding should be extended to new cell lines that meet ethics regulations, compared with 28 percent who believe current restrictions should remain intact.
Among Catholics, 70 percent were in favor of expanded funding for new
lines, with 15 percent against it. The telephone survey of 802 voters in
18 states had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
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