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Pro-lifers push to stop experimentation on human embryos

WASHINGTON (BP)–For opponents of embryonic stem cell research, which destroys human embryos, winning the hearts and minds of the American people seems like an uphill struggle.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that develop into other cells and tissues.

Their effort to protect embryonic life must overcome not only a strong contingent in Congress but members of the family of an iconic pro-life president, Hollywood stars, ardent advocacy organizations, many researchers and a news media that has provided, as opponents see it, oversimplified reporting on the issue, at best, as well as an often unchallenged platform for embryonic research advocates to make their case.

Yet, protectors of embryos have raised their voices more fervently lately, using science in part to make their pleas. For example:

— Michael Reagan, son of the country’s 40th president, disagreed with other members of the family, declaring he opposed embryonic stem cell research and his father would have as well.

— Within a week following Ronald Reagan’s June 5 death after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers confirmed to The Washington Post the affliction he had is unlikely ever to benefit from embryonic stem cell treatments.

— James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, challenged journalists in a Washington, D.C., speech to report truthfully on stem cell research.

— The use of stem cells from such harmless sources as adult bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and placentas continues to provide cures for human beings, something not even attempted with stem cells from embryos.

Much of the controversy surrounds an order by President Bush that prohibits federal grants for stem cell research that results in the destruction of embryos. Bush’s 2001 order permits funding for research on the colonies of existing embryonic stem cells in which, as he put it, “the life-and-death decision has already been made.”

The president’s policy does not ban federal funding of adult stem cell research, nor prohibit privately funded embryonic stem cell research.

Yet, an all too common impression Americans are left with, defenders of Bush’s order say, is his policy is anti-stem cell research across the board.

“The institutional media talks as if there were only one kind of stem cells, and [that] President Bush is opposed to all of it,” Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, told Baptist Press. “There is lots of confusion, much of it deliberately engendered.

“We think most Americans are opposed to killing human embryos for research, and so is the president,” Johnson said. “The president strongly supports research using stem cells from adults and other sources that doesn’t require killing human embryos, and that type of ethical research is making great advances. We and the other supporters of the president’s policy are simply trying to get these two points across to the public — stem cell research can go forward without killing human embryos, and if the president’s policy is overridden, we will have crossed a fundamental, ethical line where we are starting to use members of the human species as raw material.”

Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., made some similar points in a June 15 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

“I am quite concerned that people are being falsely led to believe that it is only embryo stem cells that might have potential here,” said Weldon, a physician. He cited a list that “goes on and on” of diseases that have been successfully treated with non-embryonic stem cells, including Parkinson’s disease, blindness, some types of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple sclerosis.

In early July, German researchers reported stem cells from adult bone marrow improved the heart function in people who have had heart attacks.

There is no “model of successfully treating an animal with embryo stem cells,” Weldon said. “Indeed, it is unclear if they will ever have clinical usefulness.”

In a June 25 speech at the National Press Club, Dobson admonished his audience to report the facts about stem cell research. “To ignore the scientific realities, to fail to report that embryonic stem cell research is the less promising course of action, to allow people who are suffering to develop false hope about possible treatment breakthroughs is an unconscionable betrayal of the public trust,” he said.

Many advocates of embryonic research responded to Ronald Reagan’s death by renewing their call for government funding. The former first lady, Nancy Reagan, had reaffirmed her advocacy for such grants about a month before her husband died. Her children, Patti Davis and Ron Reagan, have spoken out in behalf of revising Bush’s policy since the funeral. Ron Reagan, in fact, will advocate for embryonic stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention later this month.

In a June 21 column, Michael Reagan, a talk radio host, reminded news outlets when they report the Reagan “family” favors embryonic stem cell research they should remember his dad and he “are also members of the Reagan ‘family,’ and my father, as I do, opposed the creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of using their stem cells as possible medical cures.”

A longtime friend and former national security adviser for Reagan said in a New York Times column June 11 those who seek to promote embryonic research in the late president’s name could not do so “without ignoring President Reagan’s own words and actions.”

Reagan would have opposed embryonic stem cell research from both a moral and market standpoint, William Clark said.

Reagan “would have asked the marketplace question: If human embryo research is so clearly promising as the researchers assert, why aren’t private investors putting money into it, as they are in adult stem cell research?” Clark wrote. “[I] have no doubt that he would have urged our nation to look to adult stem cell research — which has yielded many clinical successes — and away from the destruction of developing human lives, which has yielded none.”

These declarations and successes, though little recognized, come at an important time for foes of embryonic stem cell research, one analyst says.

“Polls show that the public doesn’t know much about the science or the policy surrounding stem cell research, and that means they really haven’t solidified their opinions,” Ohio State University communications professor Matthew Nisbet said in late June, according to Medical News Today. “The public is at a point where they are probably open to the appeals of both advocates and opponents of [embryonic] stem cell research. The battle is on among both sides to define the issue in terms that will help their cause.”