THE WHISPER campaign being waged by Nancy Reagan these days might surprise her former critics. Then again, anyone who has lived with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's disease wouldn't be surprised by the former first lady's actions. In her own quiet but forceful way, Mrs. Reagan has been lobbying for an overhaul of the Bush administration's restrictive policy on embryonic stem cell research.
Her efforts come at an opportune time as scientists raise concerns about the limits of the Bush policy and the impact on America's dominance in the field.
It was a year ago August when Mr. Bush opened the door for scientists who receive federal funds to do this kind of research. But he restricted the number of embryonic stem cell lines available to them. Specifically, he prohibited the use of any stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001, the day he unveiled the policy. Researchers then acknowledged the president's compromise in the face of formidable political opposition.
Anti-abortion groups, supporters of the Bush presidency, lobbied strongly against lifting the ban on the use of federal funds in embryonic stem cell research. They oppose such research because the cells come from destroyed human embryos produced during in vitro fertilization. The research potential lies in the fact that the stem cells can evolve into any kind of cell in the body. The promise is that new therapies to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and multiple sclerosis will be found as a result.
At the time of the Bush compromise, scientists welcomed the chance -- any chance -- to do potentially groundbreaking research with federal help. But today, 14 months later, researchers including Johns Hopkins oncologist Curt I. Civin and organizations such as the American Society for Cell Biology say the Bush protocols are hampering research efforts. Not enough cell lines are available, and the quality and quantity of them are disputed. Owners of the cell lines place demands on researchers who want to buy them, such as requiring a share in any future research profits.
During testimony Sept. 25 before a Senate committee, researchers warned that some colleagues are taking their work overseas where the research climate is friendlier. Perhaps most alarming is the news that Britain, Singapore, China and other countries are making inroads into the field at the expense of the United States. Young U.S. researchers are thinking twice about entering the field because of the political climate: Why invest in research that could again be limited or ultimately banned?
The administration needs to review its policy and ensure that researchers have access to the limited stem cell lines in play. And if the lines available don't prove adequate to the demand, the president should rethink his ban on embryonic stem cells produced after Aug. 9, 2001. A new law in California, signed by the governor Sept. 22, offers an alternative. It allows couples with frozen embryos to donate them for research.
Proponents of reviewing the Bush policy may find Mrs. Reagan an unlikely ally. They may not have voted for her husband or agree with her politics, but on this controversial subject her help could be invaluable.
This issue needs a human face. Mrs. Reagan is making her case as she did during her years in the White House -- behind the scenes and with influential friends and well-placed sources.
If she has whispered in the president's ear, let's hope he has listened. The promise of this research is too great to waste.