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Stem Cell Research Gains Political Life

Times Staff Writers

The sleeper issue of stem cell research leapt into the center of the presidential race Monday as Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign attacked President Bush with renewed vigor for limiting the scope of the work and the White House launched a multifront drive to show that the president supported using the science to find cures for debilitating diseases.

The Bush administration, stung by evidence that many voters favored less restrictive policies, said the president’s fundamental position had not changed. But it sought to recast Bush’s image on the highly charged issue by portraying him as a champion of stem cell research, as well as of moral limits on scientific inquiry.

First Lady Laura Bush, a top administration science advisor and the chief White House spokesman all emphasized Bush’s support in 2001 for the first federal funding of the research.

The president provoked controversy at the time by insisting that federally funded scientists work only with existing cell lines and not with tissue derived from new human embryos or eggs.

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Democrats have long favored a less restrictive policy on the use of embryonic tissues, but Republicans are working to mobilize antiabortion activists and conservatives who oppose the use of human stem cells.

At the same time, Bush is trying to attract undecided voters who, polls show, are increasingly supportive of research that advocates say could offer cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Poll data suggest public support for stem cell research cuts across party lines.

On Monday, vice presidential nominee John Edwards led the charge for the Democrats, saying in an afternoon conference call that a Kerry administration would remove the Bush ban on creating new lines of stem cells.

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Edwards said it was “against our national character to look the other way while people are suffering,” and promised that a Kerry administration would at least quadruple federal spending on stem cell research -- to $100 million a year -- and remove restrictions so that scientists could work with new lines of stem cells.

He said that he and Kerry would make sure that a series of ethical guidelines were followed.

The Democrats planned to keep highlighting the issue this week.

“There is no question this is a very significant sleeper issue which we are trying to awaken,” said Mark Mellman, Kerry’s pollster.

The White House said Bush’s position had been misrepresented and misunderstood.

“This president is delivering when it comes to advancing medical research and combating disease,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters. “He is the first president to authorize federal funding to explore the promise and potential of embryonic stem cell research.”

McClellan’s sentiments were echoed in separate remarks by the first lady in Pennsylvania and by former White House advisor Jay Lefkowitz in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Bush campaign.

“Although you might not know about it from listening to the news lately, the president also looks forward to medical breakthroughs that may arise from stem cell research,” Mrs. Bush said. “Few people know that George W. Bush is the only president to ever authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.”

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The research involves the use of fertilized embryos or unfertilized eggs to create stem cells -- master cells that can turn into any tissue in the body, potentially patching spinal chord injuries and forestalling disease.

Scientists say they are concerned that Bush’s restrictions limit the use not only of fertilized embryos but of unfertilized human eggs that can be activated into stem cells.

Ann Kiessling of Harvard Medical School, a leading researcher in the field, said Bush deserved credit for providing the first federal funds to promote stem cell research in 2001.

But the president’s insistence that the work be limited to cells derived before August 2001 meant that there were only about eight cell lines available to publicly funded researchers in the United States, she said.

“If you are going to spend just on those cell lines and not on the other stem cell lines, that is very limiting. That’s still a big problem,” Kiessling said in an interview.

She noted that the cells available for research funded by the National Institutes of Health were not appropriate for therapeutic treatment of humans because they were derived in part through the use of animal cells.

The stem cell issue has been debated by scientists and bioethicists for more than three years.

But what has catapulted it to the forefront of the campaign are developments that began with the death of former President Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

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Recent polls show many voters are closer to Kerry’s position than Bush’s.

Findings released Monday by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey showed that about two out of three American adults -- including more than half of Republicans -- favored research using stem cells taken from human embryos.

Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said the preliminary findings of a poll he was conducting showed intense interest in the issue among undecided voters.

“On most issues, swing voters are less engaged than committed voters,” Kohut said. In this case, “they’re moderates. And a lot of middle-age people are more interested in this than they were a few years ago.”

While pollsters and Republican strategists say it remains unclear whether the stem cell issue will prove decisive for swing voters, they agree that the White House was stung by the issue’s sudden rise in prominence after the death of Reagan, a conservative icon.

In a speech at the Democratic National Convention, Reagan’s son Ron charged that Bush was standing in the way of medical progress.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who has spoken out against the administration’s policy on stem cells, has thus far declined an invitation to attend the Republican National Convention.

“The catalyst was Ron Reagan’s speech,” said a Bush campaign strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He elevated the issue, elevated it in a way that was not honest and not fair to the president.”

The White House is worried about voters like Doris Blankinship, a 47-year-old Republican from Orlando, Fla. She voted for Bush four years ago but said in a recent interview that she wondered why the president had “put so much political stuff” on the stem cell question.

“I have friends that have juvenile diabetes and have friends that have Parkinson’s,” Blankinship said. “If something can be done to help them, I don’t see why it can’t be done.... I don’t understand why President Bush is so against it.”

The White House effort to refurbish Bush’s image on the issue coincided with the third anniversary of the president’s decision to allow federal funding of some embryonic stem cell research -- a compromise intended to allow for scientific progress while allaying concerns of antiabortion activists and religious conservatives who morally oppose the use of human embryos.

Bush and his campaign have attacked Kerry for shifting his stances on issues, which Republicans say contrast with the president’s resolve. The stem cell question is a point on which the Massachusetts senator holds the less nuanced stance.

Presidential spokesman McClellan, speaking from the White House press room, said, “I’ve seen a lot of misreporting about this issue recently that seems to imply that we put a ban on stem cell research.”

The first lady contended that the president’s critics had not only misstated his position but exaggerated how quickly the research might pay off.

“I hope that stem cell research will yield cures,” she said. “But I know that embryonic stem cell research is very preliminary right now, and the implication that cures for Alzheimer’s are around the corner is just not right, and it’s really not fair to people watching a loved one suffer with this disease.”

Wallsten reported from Washington, Rainey from Los Angeles.


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