June 8, 2004 -- Backers of embryonic stem cell research are increasing pressure to expand funding for the controversial research technique as Capitol Hill prepares for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan on Friday.
Reagan died Saturday at 93 after struggling with Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade. The passing of a president revered by Republicans -- coupled with his wife's outspoken support of science using stem cells -- appears to have spurred efforts to enhance federal support for the research.
The U.S. Senate has deadlocked since last year over whether to ban all cloning or to allow cloning only to help expand the numbers of embryonic stem cells. These cells have the ability to grow into almost any human tissue.
But the research remains highly controversial because obtaining and growing these cells for research purposes requires the destruction of a potentially viable human embryo -- one that is one week or so old, a stage of development that has only a few dozen cells.
Some pro-life lawmakers have called for legislation that would amount to a ban on the studies.
Now with the nation's attention focused on the life and decline of the former president, Republican and Democratic supporters of stem cell research predict that they may have enough support to pass their bill.
"I can't think of a way in which we could honor President Reagan more than that," says Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
Daschle and 57 other senators, including several pro-life Republicans, sent a letter to President Bush Friday urging him to reconsider an August 2001 decision limiting federal funding to 78 stem cell groups in existence at the time. Bush said at the time that the decision was designed to encourage the potential of the research while avoiding the destruction of human embryos to obtain these cells.
Two years later, scientists are expressing disappointment with the 78 stem cell lines, saying that less than 20 groups have proved useful for experiments. They complain that research is being slowed because the available stem cell groups lack the genetic diversity required for wide-ranging studies.
A Forceful First Lady
The 58 senators have a valuable ally in Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, who has made impassioned pleas for the research because of its potential to understand or cure degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer's disease.
Nancy Reagan last spoke on the issue publicly in May, when she told an audience in Beverly Hills, Calif., that she is "determined" to help save other families from suffering.
"I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this," she said.
Several lawmakers tell WebMD that Nancy Reagan's call for the research has been the key to winning over members of Congress who were undecided about the ethical issues of experimental cloning and stem cell research.
"She's listened to," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), a co-sponsor of the stem cell research bill and chairman of the appropriations health subcommittee. Nancy Reagan's influence with Republicans, along with support from several pro-life lawmakers, has galvanized support, he says.
"All of that adds up to show that this is an important matter not to turn on ideology," he says.
Opponents of the research suggested that the debate won't be affected by the former president's death or his wife's advocacy.
"I think it probably already has," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, says when asked whether Nancy Reagan's support will influence the Senate debate.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who supports banning embryonic stem cell research, declined to comment on Nancy Reagan's potential influence in the wake of her husband's death. "We're recognizing his great life and that's my focus now," he says.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a pro-life lawmaker and longtime friend of the Reagans, says in an interview that the former first lady is likely to step up her calls for funding stem cell studies. "I believe that will release her finally to be able to spend even more time," he says.
Hatch, who helped author the bill authorizing stem cell research, suggests that the measure already has enough support to pass the Senate. Controversial bills can require the support of at least 60 members under Senate rules.
"We had 58 on the letter. I have no doubt we have more than 60 who support it," he says. "The only thing I can say holding it back is the [crowded] schedule on the floor" of the Senate.