From his grave, the Gipper may decide the election

By Bill Press

Attempting to breathe life into his already-moribund campaign, Ralph Nader runs around the country insisting there is no difference between the two major candidates. He’s as wrong about that as he is about everything else.

You think it won’t make any difference whether John Kerry or George W. Bush is elected president? Consider their stand on stem-cell research. On that one issue alone, they are as different as day and night, health and sickness, life and death.

For millions of Americans, this is more than just a philosophical or theological debate. Stem cells are the most promising frontier of medical research. Cells harvested from microscopic embryos can be grown into replacement organs or tissues that could provide the secrets to new treatments, or even cures, for serious illnesses like Parkinson’s, ALS, diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer’s – diseases for which, today, there is no cure.

Kerry’s position is clear: Government should get out of the way and let scientists do their work. He supports lifting the ban on stem-cell research, providing full federal funding, and removing any barriers to medical research.

Bush’s position is also clear. It’s the one announced on Aug. 9, 2001: A ban on federal funding for any further research, except on 78 already existing stem-cell lines – created from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures – for which Bush pledged $100 million. That may sound good, but it’s nothing but bad science, bad public policy and bad ethics.

It’s bad science. Medical experts report that, today, only 15 to 20 of those 78 lines have actually proven valid for research – many more fruitful lines are yet to be discovered – and Bush has reduced funding from the promised $100 million to a paltry $25 million. That means most medical schools, which depend on federal funding, can never keep up with privately funded labs, not subject to the Bush restraints. Nor can American researchers any longer compete with British scientists, who recently received government approval to use cloning techniques to produce new stem cells.

It’s bad public policy. As pointed out in letter from 58 senators to President Bush on June 8, 2004, the United States can no longer ignore the amazing potential of stem-cell research. No one argues that a cure for Alzheimer’s is “just around the corner.” But we’ll never get there if we stop medical research in its tracks. That letter was signed by 43 Democrats, one Independent and 14 Republicans, including conservatives Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Lamar Alexander.

It’s bad ethics. Bush’s opposition to new research, of course, was purely political – meant to appeal to religious conservatives, who oppose stem-cell research because they believe it encourages abortion. They’re dead wrong, and so is President Bush.

Do they really think any woman will run out and have an abortion simply to give medical researchers one more lab experiment? Besides, embryos from aborted fetuses are only one potential source for harvesting stem cells, and not even the main one. Most actually come from hundreds of thousands of embryos created by doctors helping women conceive by in vitro fertilization.

Here’s the point: Those frozen embryos, or those aborted fetuses, are going to be destroyed, anyway. The idea that we should incinerate them – rather than take advantage of their potential to save millions of lives – turns ethics upside down. It is a cruel, cold-hearted public policy that puts politics over science and ideology over compassion.

Unfortunately, George Bush has let Rev. Jerry Falwell define “pro-life” as, in effect, “anti-life.” The “true pro-life position,” as Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole argued back in 1992 and Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch confirms today, is using cells to cure the diseases of people, including millions of children, who will otherwise die.

That’s why former first lady Nancy Reagan supports stem-cell research. That’s why their son Ron Jr. made such an impassioned plea to the Democratic National Convention.

“In a few months, we will face a choice,” Reagan reminded delegates. “Yes, between two candidates and two parties, but more than that. We have a chance to take a great stride forward for the good of all humanity. We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology.”

“Whatever else you do come Nov. 2,” Reagan implored all Americans, “I urge you, please, cast a vote for embryonic stem-cell research.”

To which I say: Amen.