Politics & Policy

Stem-Cell Hard Sell

Editor’s Note: As the Senate debates federal funding for research that kills human embryos, supporters of that policy are invoking Ronald Reagan’s memory to bolster their case. In the July 12, 2004, issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru explained how the advocates were distorting Reagan’s record–and also distorting the science and the state of public opinion.

Nancy Reagan believes that increased government funding for embryonic stem-cell research could keep other families from going through the trauma of Alzheimer’s disease. To her credit, she has never said that her husband would have favored such funding, or suggested that Republicans have an obligation to support it in memory of him.

#ad#Not all advocates of the funding have been so restrained. Two days after Reagan’s death, William Safire was writing in the New York Times that increased funding would be the Gipper’s last victory. Sen. Orrin Hatch — who pledged during his last Republican primary campaign to oppose embryo research, but then broke his promise — said, “Maybe one of the small blessings that will come from [Reagan’s] passing will be a greater opportunity for Nancy to work on this issue.” The Washington Post ran an editorial that week arguing against the memorials that some Reaganites want — Reagan on the dime, for instance. A more appropriate way to honor Reagan, according to the Post: increased funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Newsweek published a Reagan memorial issue; its next issue included three pieces making the case for increased stem-cell funding. The first was a news article that played up the potential benefits of research for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. In the second, columnist Jonathan Alter speculated that Reagan would have favored it. And in the third, Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote that the research could cure Alzheimer’s. She even wrote that promoting the research could be God’s redemptive purpose for her family’s suffering.

Even before Reagan’s death, the debate over funding for embryonic stem-cell research was heating up. Letters were circulating on Capitol Hill demanding increased funding; eventually 58 senators and 206 members of the House signed them and sent them to President Bush. Liberals support increased funding, on the merits — but they also believe that the issue will hurt President Bush, and pro-lifers. Some Republicans, like Mrs. Reagan, join them in supporting the funding; many others are running scared. The national media want to make this summer a reprise of the summer of 2001, when they campaigned relentlessly for the funding (Newsweek ran a slanted cover story then, too), and tried to box in Bush.


The campaign for increased funding is trafficking heavily in inaccuracy. While the vast majority of the people involved in that campaign are no doubt sincere in their advocacy, they are distorting President Reagan’s record, exaggerating the likelihood that increased funding will lead to cures for

diseases, misrepresenting current policy, and citing bogus public-opinion research.

Nobody can say with confidence what Reagan would have done about this research if he were participating in today’s debate. Nor is that an especially fruitful question. Many of the news accounts after he died, however, made Reagan seem less conservative than he was. We were often told that as governor he had signed a bill that liberalized abortion law. It made abortion legal in cases of rape, incest, and threats to mothers’ lives and health. What we were not often told is that Reagan regretted signing that law once he discovered how liberally the “health” exception was interpreted. Reagan also went on to write a book against abortion — a fairly remarkable act for a sitting president. He proclaimed a national “sanctity of life” day declaring “the unalienable personhood of every American, from the moment of conception until natural death. “ Most to the point, he blocked federal funding of research on human embryos.

We also know that the president and his wife did not see eye to eye on these issues. Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan recounts in his memoirs that Mrs. Reagan called him to ask that anti-abortion comments be removed from a State of the Union address. Regan said that the president had especially wanted to speak about abortion. The First Lady responded, “I don’t give a damn about the right-to-lifers.”

The pro-funding lobby gives as one-sided a picture of the potential health benefits of the research as it does of Reagan’s views. In their letters to President Bush, the 264 pro-funding congressmen write, “As you know, embryonic stem cells have the potential to be used to treat and better understand deadly and disabling diseases and conditions that affect more than 100 million Americans, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and many others.” The claim is worded vaguely enough so that it is not exactly false: You couldn’t prove that the research has no “potential” to improve our understanding of the common cold. Under the influence of the pro-funding lobby, relatives of ailing people now believe even stronger claims. Patti Davis’s Newsweek article called stem-cell research “the miracle that can cure not only Alzheimer’s but many other diseases and afflictions.”

But Rick Weiss reported in the Washington Post that, “of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.” (Embarrassingly for the Post, it ran its editorial arguing that increased funding could lead to Alzheimer’s treatments on the same day it ran the Weiss story.) Cancer and heart disease are pretty far down the list, too, although they’re useful in generating the figure of “more than 100 million Americans.” Whether embryonic stem-cell research has more promise than research on stem cells taken from adults or umbilical-cord blood is a subject of fierce dispute. Most scientists seem to favor the embryonic research, or research on cloned embryos. But even the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which strongly backs funding for that research, puts more of its own money into adult stem-cell research.

False claims about the current policy are everywhere. In the 1990s, Congress banned funding for research that would destroy human embryos. The Clinton administration decided that this ban meant that the federal government could not pay for the destruction of embryos, but could pay for research on stem cells once they were taken from the embryos. It was in the process of issuing regulations to that effect when Bush took over.

Bush didn’t want to encourage the destruction of embryos by declaring the government’s willingness to fund all such research. Instead, on August 9, 2001, he announced that he would fund research only on stem cells that had been taken from embryos before that date. That meant, he said, that around 60 existing stem-cell lines would be eligible for funding, but no future lines would be. The government would promote research, but would not cooperate in a moral wrong. Nor would it ask taxpayers who object to the destruction of embryos to subsidize it. The federal government would not, however, ban any privately financed research.

The president’s critics say his numbers have proven wrong: Only 19 subsidized lines are available to researchers. Wittingly or not, the critics are conflating eligibility and availability. The lines that were eligible for funding were not immediately available. Legal rights had to be parceled out, and the lines had to be developed. These processes took time, and not because of Bush’s funding restrictions. But the number of available lines has been increasing, and will continue to increase — possibly to as many as 55. The congressmen claim that if Bush’s policy were liberalized, research could be done on 400,000 embryos currently frozen at IVF clinics. But the study from which that estimate comes notes that most of those embryos have been stored for future reproductive use. The study indicates that at most 275 additional lines could be generated from these embryos.

It is certainly true that if the president’s goal were to maximize embryonic stem-cell research, to the exclusion of other concerns, he would adopt a more liberal policy. The director of the National Institutes of Health has said as much, in a statement that pro-funding polemicists have treated as a devastating admission. But it is also true that no researcher has complained that the current policy is impeding him; the complaints have been more along the lines that the policy is keeping people from going into the field.

Funding proponents have sometimes been willing to imply that Bush has prohibited embryo research rather than limited government funding for it. Patti Davis wrote in her Newsweek op-ed that her mother had “emerged as a central figure in the effort to get the federal government out of the way.” That is becoming a talking point of the campaign, and it is deeply misleading: The effort is to get the federal government to pay, not get out of the way.


Finally, proponents of funding are making false claims about public opinion. A pro-funding organization commissioned a poll by Democrat Peter Hart that got a lot of attention. It purported to show that Americans strongly supported funding, and that the more informed voters were, the more likely they were to support it. But the poll was, at best, extremely sloppy. It found that voters were more likely to support the funding when they were “informed” that the research “offers the best hope we have today for curing such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which today cause pain and suffering to more than 100 million Americans.” They were also “informed” that “highly respected” groups favor the research, including “the National Institutes of Health.” The “highly respected” label stacks the deck, and in truth the NIH — a division of the Bush administration — does not support liberalized funding. The poll also counted voters as supporting funding the research when they may have merely supported allowing it. Unbiased polls find that most people do not know much about the issue and are open to appeals from both sides. Gallup found that 54 percent of the public favored the research, but that poll didn’t ask about taxpayer funding.

There’s no question that President Bush and his allies have a hard job. Opposing the demands of people with terrible illnesses, however much lobbying groups have misled those people, is very hard. Nobody wants to be, or to appear, indifferent to human suffering. Parts of the Republican coalition support the research. Many libertarians, for example, seem to have tacitly decided that they dislike pro-lifers more than they dislike government subsidies. A few pro-life congressmen have decided that it is better to kill embryos in a good cause than to let them stay in deep freeze.

The administration, which includes many people who are not personally committed to the president’s policy, has not been vigorous in defending it. “They seem to hope the issue will go away,” says one close observer. Bush did a reasonably good job in laying out the case for his position in a televised prime-time address when he announced it. But he has not returned to the issue. Perhaps he should press the argument about using government funds in ways many taxpayers oppose. That argument has served conservatives well in the abortion-funding debate.

In the longer run, pro-lifers need to go on offense. They could push Congress to ban research — public or private — on embryos that are more than two weeks old. That could become a consensus position: Bush’s commission on bioethics, though bitterly divided on embryo research and cloning, unanimously endorsed the idea. Pro-life organizations have balked, however, worrying that the idea would lend tacit support to research during those first two weeks. But at least the proposal would make us debate how much protection to give embryos. Right now, we are debating how much to subsidize their destruction: how much ground, that is, we should lose this year.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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