Stem Cell Funding Is Put in Spotlight
Nancy Reagan makes a rare speech urging more research, which is limited by U.S. policy
By Stephanie Chavez, Times Staff Writer
In rare remarks aimed at influencing national public policy, former First Lady Nancy Reagan told a star-studded crowd Saturday night that stem cell research must be pursued "to save families from the pain" of debilitating illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts her husband, former President Reagan.
"I am determined to do whatever I can," she said after receiving a standing ovation at a gala fundraiser in her honor at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
She told the crowd, which included Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford and James Taylor, that Alzheimer's had taken her husband "to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." She added that stem cell research held hope for a cure.
"I don't see how we can turn our backs on this," she said. "We have lost so much time. I just can't bear to lose any more."
In the past, she has discreetly made known her views in support of stem cell research. But Saturday's event marked the first time that she had spoken publicly in favor of the research, for which President Bush limited federal funding in 2001, following a politically charged debate.
Before Saturday's event, Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, said the former first lady's strong support of stem cell research would be a "tremendous boon."
"She's so revered by the entire cross-section of the country, they trust her judgment when she says, 'This is about helping people who we love,' " said Fox, who has a foundation that supports stem cell research
"She's looked at it, thought about it and prayed, and realized it is the right thing to do," he said.
Actor Ford read letters from former Presidents Clinton, Carter and Ford.
President Ford's letter said: "We are so proud of your strength over the last challenging years."
In his letter, Clinton said: "She has demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to supporting a field of research that could save countless lives."
After a video tribute to the Reagans, Fox presented the former first lady with a Caregiver's Award, a tribute to her commitment in caring for her ailing husband, 93, who revealed 10 years ago that he had Alzheimer's disease. The former president no longer makes public appearances and is cared for by his wife in their Bel-Air home.
Reagan was escorted to the event by longtime family friend and entertainer Merv Griffin. She approached the podium in tears and told Fox, "I have such admiration for you. Your children must be so proud."
The event included speeches from people who suffer from diabetes, as well as a leading scientist in the field, Larry Goldstein of UC San Diego.
The $500-a-plate dinner was expected to raise about $2 million, the first time the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has held an event specifically aimed at funding stem cell research.
Scientists believe embryonic stem cells hold the key to curing a range of diseases that afflict nearly 100 million Americans as researchers learn how to mold the cells into pancreas cells for diabetics, replacement brain cells for people with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease or heart cells for cardiac patients. Stem cell research holds promise for those with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and other afflictions.
The Bush policy limits the use of taxpayer money, which funds most U.S. medical research, to experiments on a narrow set of stem cells that had been taken from human embryos before August 2001. A broader policy would be immoral, he said, because it would cause more human embryos to be destroyed for their stem cells.
Bush's decision was a relief to many abortion opponents and religious conservatives, politically potent Bush allies.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, said it was unacceptable, and that research that began with the destruction of human embryos was tantamount to murder.
Prominent scientists and disease advocacy groups criticized the decision, saying that it would prevent them from jump-starting one of the most promising fields of medical research.
As a respected Republican figure, the former first lady is expected to give a high-profile boost to a renewed effort to reopen the debate on stem cell research.
"When the wife of one of the most popular presidents, a strong conservative, makes a public statement that this research must go forward with all haste ... it further demonstrates in a dramatic and vivid way that the yearning for cures trump politics and trump ideologies," said Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.
Just last week, more than 200 members of Congress, including conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and other abortion opponents, signed a letter to Bush urging him to change his policy to allow funding of research on embryonic stem cells derived from excess in vitro fertilized embryos developed to help infertile couples have children. An estimated 400,000 such embryos are held in frozen storage, and they are likely to be destroyed if not donated to research with the couples' consent.
The letter urges the changes because the researchers have found that only 19 of the original 78 embryonic cell lines authorized for federal research funding are still available -- and they are contaminated, making their use for humans uncertain.
Also, more and more research is moving overseas, the letter states.
Trent Duffy, a Bush spokesman, said Saturday that the president's policy remained the same, "which is we remain committed to the promise of research on existing stem cell lines."
He said that though "we respect those with different views, we can't allow for federal funding that would encourage the destruction of human embryos."
Federal law, however, does not prohibit private sector or state funding for stem cell research.
California has emerged at the forefront of this biomedical field with the passage in the last two years of several laws that encourage stem cell research. The laws authorize the use of human embryos and establish ethical and legal standards for their use.
California voters could be propelled into the debate if a statewide initiative qualifies for the November ballot. The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative proposes a $3-billion general-obligation bond measure that would fund stem cell research over a 10-year period, and would represent the largest state public funding source in the nation.
A $350-million annual spending cap would be established, and principal and interest payments would be deferred for five years, said Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for the measure.
Supporters of the measure, which include more than 25 disease advocacy groups, 10 Nobel laureates and other scientists, have submitted more than 1 million signatures to the secretary of state's office, which will decide whether it qualifies for the ballot.
Campaign finance disclosure statements show that the measure received $1.8 million in contributions from Jan. 1 to March 31, including a $500,000 donation from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.