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

Medical Research vs. Moral Principles

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 19, 2004 (Zenit.org).- 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 lifted, the legislation proposed by Senator Feinstein and others would make it legal to clone embryos using taxpayer money, Saunders noted. Under the proposal the clones would be destroyed within 14 days and used only for research.

"Everyone says we want stem cell research to cure sick people. But how we cure people is important," said Saunders. Turning people into a commodity is a dangerous step, she warned. "How far is it from a 14-day-old cloned embryo to fetal farming -- manufacturing fetuses to harvest body parts?"

Eric Cohen, a consultant to President Bush's Council on Bioethics, objected to the destruction of human life resulting from stem cell research. Writing in USA Today on June 8, Cohen argued that while the embryos destroyed may be small, "size does not define a person's humanity." And while they many not have had a chance to develop human consciousness at such an early stage, "human dignity does not reside in our consciousness alone."

Cohen also noted that the Bush policy does not impede research in the private sector, but instead avoids "forcing all taxpayers to support new embryo destruction."

Indeed, research using embryonic stem cells is proceeding apace without any federal funds. Governor James McGreevey of New Jersey recently signed legislation establishing a state-supported research center, the New York Times reported May 13. The Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey will be run jointly by Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. McGreevey has proposed $6.5 million for the institute in a budget proposal, which awaits approval by the Legislature.

As for the private sector, research on stem cells is continuing, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 18. One example is funding from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in New York, which has backed embryonic stem cell research in four labs in the United States. One of these, at Harvard University, has created 17 new cell lines.

And just last week, scientists at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago announced that they have isolated 12 new stem cell lines, the Associated Press reported June 9. The cells came from unused embryos donated by couples who underwent prenatal genetic screening the center.

Sacrificing life

On numerous occasions the Catholic Church has expressed its opposition to embryonic stem cell research, whatever the funding source may be. Biomedical research "must fully respect every person's inalienable dignity as a person, his right to life and his substantial physical integrity," stated the concluding communiqué of the 9th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, held at the Vatican in February 2003.

"The attitude some adopt concerning the legitimacy of sacrificing the (physical and genetic) integrity of human beings at the embryonic stage in order to destroy them, if necessary, in order to benefit other human individuals is likewise totally unacceptable," said the communiqué. "It is never morally licit to do evil intentionally in order to achieve ends that are good in themselves." A principle often overlooked by allies of embryonic stem cell research.