WASHINGTON — If some advocates have their way, human embryonic stem-cell research might be swept into greater legislative approval on a deceased president's funeral coattails.

Pro-life president Ronald Reagan's long suffering from Alzheimer's disease is being used to put pressure on President Bush to ease restrictions Bush imposed on taxpayer funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The research requires scientists to destroy human life to research into what some say are future lifesaving therapies.

Pressure had already been mounting on Bush to abandon the restrictions he set in 2001, including a letter sent to him by more than 200 members of the House of Representatives and 58 U.S. senators the day before Reagan died. The congressional letter was released after the former president's death.

In May, former first lady Nancy Reagan — who watched for a decade as her husband suffered from Alzheimer's disease — made a plea for a change in the Bush policy.

In an editorial June 8, The New York Times said it would be a “fitting tribute” to Reagan if Mrs. Reagan continued to speak out. The New York Daily News and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver joined the Times in calling for a relaxation of the Bush policy in the wake of Reagan's death.

But, ironically, said the Washington Post on June 10, stem-cell therapy wouldn't have been much help for Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. Reported the paper: “The infrequently voiced reality, stem cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer's is among the least likely to benefit.”

First lady Laura Bush told Reuters on June 9 that while she admired Nancy Reagan's devotion to her late husband during his battle with Alzheimer's disease, she could not support Nancy Reagan's position.

Laura Bush's father, who also struggled with Alzheimer's, died in 1997.

“There are stem cells to do research on and … we have to be really careful between what we want to do for science and what we should do ethically,” the first lady said. “Stem cell … is certainly one of those issues that we need to treat very carefully.”

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the embryonic stem-cell agenda is set by the for-profit biotechnology firms and their allies in the research community and some of them might have more ominous motives.

Embryonic stem cells are of great interest to biotech firms because they are capable of being patented, quantified and sold, he said. And he warned that some researchers want to use embryonic stem cells and cloning to unlock the secrets of early human development, refine methods for human genetic engineering and make the “designer baby” possible. Such technologies could lead to a “brave new world” of manufactured and exploited humanity, he warned, if society does not erect moral barriers.

Doerflinger also said the ground troops for this movement are the dedicated but misinformed members of various patient groups who have been told embryonic stem cells will cure them or their children.

Diabetes Research

Doerflinger singled out the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for descending on Congress in great numbers to tell members that a failure to destroy more embryos for stem cells will doom their children with diabetes. He said some patient groups believe advocates’ argument that embryonic stem cells are the Holy Grail of medical cures.

Doerflinger said those supporting embryonic stem cell research ignore the substantial evidence of great promise with adult stem cells. That's not surprising, he said.

“Biotech firms and researchers have little to gain from simple surgical procedures for curing patients with their own adult stem cells,” he said.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has been in the forefront of the push for more federal funding. William Ahearn, vice president of strategic communications and information technology for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, said the majority of Americans are advocates for change in the administration's policy.

“[The foundation] is simply reflecting what they are looking for: a chance for science to explore the opportunities stem-cell research may hold to help more than 100 million Americans suffering from a wide range of diseases,” he said.

Ahearn said the foundation hears daily from mothers and fathers of children with diabetes asking, “When will my child be cured?” He believes the solution is to provide scientists with the opportunity to work with more stem-cell lines. He hopes the recent letter from congressmen “will be seen as the latest development in what has become a quickly advancing grass-roots call for a change in policy.”

On its webpage, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation says adult stem cells “may be limited in both their ability to replicate in the laboratory and in the type of tissues they can become.”

Bush Response

White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said the Bush administration is pursuing research on adult stem cells. She said the president remains committed to stem-cell research but continues to believe society should not cross a fundamental moral line by funding or encouraging the destruction of human embryos. She said he believes life should not be created simply to destroy it.

During a May 15 commencement speech at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., the president reiterated his opposition to cloning and the use of embryonic stem cells by saying such procedures are anathema to American ideals.

“Our standards must be high and clear and fixed,” Bush said. “Life is not just a tool or a commodity or a means to other ends. Nothing good or just can be built on the destruction of others.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., was to lead a subcommittee hearing June 9 on successes in adult stem-cell research. Like all work in Congress the week leading up to President Reagan's state funeral, the meeting was postponed.

Doerflinger promised that the pro-life secretariat would continue to inform the public on the latest groundbreaking advances in nonembryonic stem cells and working with congressional committees. He said there are too many members of Congress not sufficiently aware of the way morally acceptable avenues are outpacing embryonic stem cells in helping patients.

President Bush ”does not intend to change the policy, and I have no reason to doubt this,” he said. “He believes this debate is not only about the practicalities of cell lines but also about a moral principle.”

Keith Peters writes from Spotsylvania, Virginia.