Nancy's Next Campaign; the Former First Lady's Passion for Stem-Cell Research Has Fueled a Political Battle. Where Does the Science Stand?

Article excerpt

Byline: Claudia Kalb and Debra Rosenberg, With Anne Underwood, Tamara Lipper, Eleanor Clift, Karen Springen, Karen Breslau and Ken Shulman, Graphics by Josh Ulick

One spring afternoon in 2002, eight long years into her husband's descent into Alzheimer's, Nancy Reagan went to her friend Doug Wick's home in Los Angeles for a Hollywood-style tutorial on stem cells. Along with Wick and his wife, Lucy, both producers, the cast included moviemakers Jerry and Janet Zucker, actor Warren Beatty and Dr. Richard Klausner, now head of global health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nancy Reagan already knew a bit about stem cells--a year earlier, she'd written a letter to President Bush asking him to support embryonic research--but she was eager to delve deeper. Together the group discussed the ethics, the politics and the science. "She asked a lot of questions about what [stem cells] were, where they came from," says Klausner. Nancy knew it was too late to rescue her husband, but she "had a higher purpose," says Wick. "She feels the greatest legacy her family could ever have is to spare other families from going through what they have."

After the meeting, Nancy began making her views known behind the scenes, respectfully but forcefully--calling politicians, conversing with scientists, buttonholing lawmakers at the rare Washington dinner she allowed herself. Then last month Reagan decided to go public at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala, and she asked others to join in her quest. "Science has presented us with a hope called stem-cell research, which may provide our scientists with answers that have so long been beyond our grasp," she said. "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this--there are just so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped. We have lost so much time already, and I just really can't bear to lose any more."

Nancy Reagan's bold challenge to her own Republican Party and to Bush's 2001 policy on embryonic research was a pivotal moment for stem-cell advocates. For months they had been rallying across the country; with Nancy's support, and now with her husband's death and heroic farewell, they have found fresh momentum. Last week in Washington, 58 senators, including John Kerry, sent a letter to the White House, urging Bush to relax his restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research. In a radio address to the nation over the weekend, Kerry reaffirmed his commitment to overturning Bush's policy if elected. On the West Coast, meanwhile, Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures celebrated the collection of 1 million signatures authorizing a $3 billion stem-cell-research initiative to be put to the vote in November. In Boston 1,400 scientists gathered to discuss both embryonic and adult stem cells at a meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), where the embryonic-stem-cell advocate and Republican senator Arlen Specter encouraged them to stand up for science. "We need more political activism," he told the group. "The marvels of modern science should obviously not be shackled." Newspapers ran editorials calling on Bush to honor Ronald Reagan's legacy by revising his stem-cell policy--"George should do it for the Gipper," said one--and a New York congressman introduced the Ronald Reagan Memorial Stem Cell Research Act of 2004.

All of this infuriated embryonic opponents: one senior Republican aide said naming stem-cell legislation after the president, who was ardently opposed to abortion, was "unbelievably shameless." But out of respect for Reagan, the adversaries mostly held their fire. Bush stayed mum, but privately officials said he would not budge on his opposition to destroying human embryos for the sake of science. "No dramatic advance, no scientific development will change the ethical principle" underlying Bush's position, a senior administration official told NEWSWEEK last week. Laura Bush, whose father died of Alzheimer's, made the media rounds instead, gently reiterating the administration's position on stem-cell research without attacking Nancy head-on. …