May 19, 2004
"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." – Nancy Reagan.
The former first lady's passionate words at a recent Hollywood fund-raiser regarding her husband's struggle with Alzheimer's disease helped to return the debate over stem cell research to the public stage. She spoke publicly for the first time in support of research that scientists believe holds promise for treating such degenerative diseases as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and heart disease.
Despite its potential to relieve so much suffering, one type of stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research, also known as therapeutic cloning (as opposed to reproductive cloning, which involves the possible making of a baby) has been controversial in the United States because it involves destroying embryos of 100 to 200 cells to harvest the cells. For that reason, some pro-life groups – but not all prominent pro-life politicians – have voiced opposition to the research.
In a major speech in August 2001, President Bush ordered the National Institutes of Health to limit federal funding for research to 64 cell lines already in existence. But only 19 of those lines are available for study, according to the NIH, and they have limited application. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill restricting therapeutic cloning research and mandating a 10-year prison sentence for anyone practicing reproductive cloning. The bill stalled in the Senate.
Last month, 206 members of the House, including more than two dozen pro-life Republicans, signed a letter urging Bush to lift restrictions on stem cell research on embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization. There are an estimated 400,000 embryos stored in freezers across the nation, and if they are not used for research, nearly all of them will be destroyed.
But with the president so far standing firm on his stem cell restrictions, and researchers unhappy with them, some states are moving ahead on their own to promote research. California and New Jersey have passed laws authorizing therapeutic cloning. Legislatures in seven other states are considering similar bills.
Last month those promoting stem cell research in California submitted 1.1 million signatures to the Secretary of State's Office to qualify a measure for the November ballot that would provide $3 billion over 10 years to underwrite research. By comparison, since Bush imposed restrictions, the federal government has spent about $17 million per year.
The aim of the ballot initiative's sponsors is for California, with
one-third of the nation's biotech firms, to build 12 to 15 new stem cell
research facilities, making the state a pre-eminent location for research
worldwide. Perhaps more important, the measure's backers want to make California
a source of hope for the millions of Americans affected by degenerative
Copyright © 2004, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.