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Stem Cell Research Gains Political Life

Kerry criticizes Bush's limits on the science. And as polls show voters favor less restrictive policies, the president aims to recast his stance.

August 10, 2004|Peter Wallsten and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The sleeper issue of stem cell research leapt into the center of the presidential race Monday as Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign attacked President Bush with renewed vigor for limiting the scope of the work and the White House launched a multifront drive to show that the president supported using the science to find cures for debilitating diseases.

The Bush administration, stung by evidence that many voters favored less restrictive policies, said the president's fundamental position had not changed. But it sought to recast Bush's image on the highly charged issue by portraying him as a champion of stem cell research, as well as of moral limits on scientific inquiry.

First Lady Laura Bush, a top administration science advisor and the chief White House spokesman all emphasized Bush's support in 2001 for the first federal funding of the research.

The president provoked controversy at the time by insisting that federally funded scientists work only with existing cell lines and not with tissue derived from new human embryos or eggs.

Democrats have long favored a less restrictive policy on the use of embryonic tissues, but Republicans are working to mobilize antiabortion activists and conservatives who oppose the use of human stem cells.

At the same time, Bush is trying to attract undecided voters who, polls show, are increasingly supportive of research that advocates say could offer cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases.

Poll data suggest public support for stem cell research cuts across party lines.

On Monday, vice presidential nominee John Edwards led the charge for the Democrats, saying in an afternoon conference call that a Kerry administration would remove the Bush ban on creating new lines of stem cells.

Edwards said it was "against our national character to look the other way while people are suffering," and promised that a Kerry administration would at least quadruple federal spending on stem cell research -- to $100 million a year -- and remove restrictions so that scientists could work with new lines of stem cells.

He said that he and Kerry would make sure that a series of ethical guidelines were followed.

The Democrats planned to keep highlighting the issue this week.

"There is no question this is a very significant sleeper issue which we are trying to awaken," said Mark Mellman, Kerry's pollster.

The White House said Bush's position had been misrepresented and misunderstood.

"This president is delivering when it comes to advancing medical research and combating disease," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters. "He is the first president to authorize federal funding to explore the promise and potential of embryonic stem cell research."

McClellan's sentiments were echoed in separate remarks by the first lady in Pennsylvania and by former White House advisor Jay Lefkowitz in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Bush campaign.

"Although you might not know about it from listening to the news lately, the president also looks forward to medical breakthroughs that may arise from stem cell research," Mrs. Bush said. "Few people know that George W. Bush is the only president to ever authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research."

The research involves the use of fertilized embryos or unfertilized eggs to create stem cells -- master cells that can turn into any tissue in the body, potentially patching spinal chord injuries and forestalling disease.

Scientists say they are concerned that Bush's restrictions limit the use not only of fertilized embryos but of unfertilized human eggs that can be activated into stem cells.

Ann Kiessling of Harvard Medical School, a leading researcher in the field, said Bush deserved credit for providing the first federal funds to promote stem cell research in 2001.

But the president's insistence that the work be limited to cells derived before August 2001 meant that there were only about eight cell lines available to publicly funded researchers in the United States, she said.

"If you are going to spend just on those cell lines and not on the other stem cell lines, that is very limiting. That's still a big problem," Kiessling said in an interview.

She noted that the cells available for research funded by the National Institutes of Health were not appropriate for therapeutic treatment of humans because they were derived in part through the use of animal cells.

The stem cell issue has been debated by scientists and bioethicists for more than three years.

But what has catapulted it to the forefront of the campaign are developments that began with the death of former President Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Recent polls show many voters are closer to Kerry's position than Bush's.

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