Wasting time, crushing hope

May 14, 2004

WITHOUT EVEN being there, it's possible to hear the impatience in Nancy Reagan's voice.

She'd been lobbying quietly in her own discreet way for nearly two years to persuade President Bush to ease restrictions impeding research on embryonic stem cells that could lead to life-saving therapies for diseases such as the Alzheimer's that has forever altered her beloved husband.

Finally, the missed opportunity and hope denied became so frustrating she decided to turn up the volume.

"I don't see how we can turn our backs on this," the former first lady said at a Beverly Hills fund-raiser last weekend designed to showcase her first public comments on the issue. "We have lost so much time already. I just really can't bear to lose any more."

Mr. Bush should seize the opening Mrs. Reagan provided to update a policy that has proved impractical and counterproductive to his goal of drawing a moral line beyond which science wouldn't go.

If he would expand federally financed research to include embryos created for in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be destroyed, the prospects for breakthroughs could increase exponentially.

Struggling with the issue early in his presidency, Mr. Bush tried in August 2001 to strike a compromise: Allow federal funds to be used only for research involving existing stem-cell lines so that medical science could advance without encouraging the creation of new embryos simply for research purposes.

But it was at best a temporary solution. Most of the existing stem-cell lines proved unavailable for federal research or unusable. Researchers have turned instead to private sources or overseas, which slows the progress and eliminates any federal regulation on a process that many fear could lead to human cloning.

With pressure building from the families of more than 100 million Americans, who, like Mr. Reagan, are affected by deadly and disabling diseases, 206 members of Congress - including some top GOP leaders - recently wrote to Mr. Bush urging him to expand the policy to include new stem-cell lines created as a byproduct of in vitro fertilization.

Life is full of difficult moral and ethical questions. Values often compete. Complexity clarifies quickly, however, when the question moves from abstraction to intensely personal.

That's what drives Mrs. Reagan, she told the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala: "I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."

Let's hope Mr. Bush is listening at last.

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