Reagan’s Death May Stir Debate on Stem-Cell Research

Times Staff Writer

As president, Ronald Reagan banned research on fetal tissue seeking potential cure for diseases because the tissue came from the products of abortions. Now, ironically, Reagan’s death may invigorate a political debate over medical research on stem cells, the latest kind of cells harvested from human embryos.

Nancy Reagan attracted attention last month when she went public with her support for increased stem-cell research. Her position contradicted that of President Bush, who imposed strict limits on the research over concerns that it could encourage the creation of human life for research purposes.

Also last month, a bipartisan group of more than 200 House members called on the Bush administration to loosen its restrictions on stem-cell research.

On Friday, 58 Democratic and Republican senators sent Bush a similar letter.


Stem cells, which can multiply and become almost any type of tissue when transplanted into the body, hold promise for treating diabetes and curing degenerative neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Reagan’s death Saturday from pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer’s, and his widow’s support for research that could find treatments or cures for the disease, have added to the sense that momentum on the issue may be shifting.

“Any time that you can put a face on the people that might be helped by this research, that’s helpful,” said Sean Tipton, vice president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. “The Reagans make a powerful face.”

Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-San Diego), who originally supported Bush’s position but signed the House letter calling for an expansion of stem-cell research, said he believed the momentum shift was so clear that, if reelected, Bush might alter his policy.

White House officials insisted that Bush would hold firm to his limits.


And an antiabortion lobbyist took issue with Nancy Reagan’s standing on stem-cell research.

“It’s a matter of record that she did not agree with [Reagan’s] pro-life stance on abortion,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

“If someone does not have a problem with abortion, it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t have a problem with killing human embryos either.”

When Bush issued an executive order in 2001 limiting federal research funds to existing stem-cell colonies -- cells taken from excess embryos that had been developed outside the womb in fertility clinics -- he said 78 stem-cell lines were available.


But Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told House members last month that just 19 human embryo stem-cell lines have been available for research since Bush’s order.

Federal policy on stem-cell research remains grounded in Bush’s position “that taxpayer funds should not sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for human life,” Zerhouni said in a letter.

The letter sent by 44 Democratic and 14 Republican senators, including California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, noted that some 400,000 in vitro “test tube” embryos were believed to be in frozen storage in the United States.

The embryos “will likely be destroyed if not donated, with informed consent of the couple, for research,” according to the senators.


In the meantime, according to the Senate and House letters, a shortage of available stem-cell lines could inhibit important medical research into diseases affecting a growing number of Americans.

In addition, the Senate letter said, some U.S. scientists are going overseas for their studies, where Britain, Singapore, South Korea and Australia threaten to overtake the United States in biomedical research.

Lifting Bush’s restrictions on stem-cell research is critical, supporters say, because cuts in funding and bans on research often affect science even years after they are reversed.

After President Clinton overturned the ban on fetal tissue research instituted by Reagan, for example, eight years passed before the first trial of government-approved fetal tissue transplants yielded results that were reported in medical journals.


“Scientific knowledge is not like a spigot you can turn on and off when you want to,” said Tipton, whose coalition includes the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the American Medical Assn., the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and some 80 other groups, including organizations devoted to research on Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“If the president were to rethink his position tomorrow, we will have lost more than the three years since he announced the decision,” Tipton said.

Cunningham, like Johnson, Bush and many Republican lawmakers, opposes abortion.

But he said he came to support stem-cell research using existing embryos when he was told that many of the embryos would eventually be destroyed.


“Those that are discarded and thrown down the toilet we can use to save life and the quality of life,” he said. “That doesn’t compromise the pro-life position.”

Bush disagrees, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

He said that the president was not likely to change his position.

Bush “believes very strongly that we should not cross a moral line by funding the destruction of human embryos,” he said.


Duffy said he did not know if Bush had ever spoken to Nancy Reagan about the issue.