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US Democrats embrace stem-cell issues

July 28, 2004 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Ronald Reagan's son speaks on embryonic research at political convention.

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The embryonic stem-cell debate was centre-stage last night at the US Democratic National Convention, in Boston, Massachusetts. It seems that presidential candidate John Kerry and his supporters are eager to focus on the issue.

Ron Reagan, son of former US president Ronald Reagan, spoke about the importance of stem-cell research, calling it, "what may be the greatest medical breakthrough in our, or any, lifetime". He decried partisanship on the issue, and ended his speech with an exhortation for Americans to choose between "reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology" and to "cast a vote for embryonic stem-cell research".

Embryonic stem cells are taken from the very early stages of development of an embryo, when it is a ball of just a couple of hundred cells. They have the potential to turn into any kind of adult cell and could, in theory, be used to replace tissues damaged by diseases such as diabetes or Alzheimer's. The embryos used are either discards from fertility treatments, or created specifically to harvest the cells, which sparks fears over the ethics of such procedures.

Interest in the issue has been spurred by the elder Reagan's death from Alzheimer's disease. His widow, Nancy Reagan, openly supports expansion of the scope of stem-cell research in the United States. The current president, George W. Bush, confined research to a limited number of pre-existing cell lines in 2001. According to Ron Reagan, Kerry has told him that his first act as president would be to overturn Bush's stem-cell restrictions.

Pro-science position

Kerry has been positioning himself as a pro-science candidate throughout his campaign, visiting NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday and speaking out on embryonic stem cells. "We need a president who believes in science, and who is prepared to invest America's efforts to cure Parkinson's and AIDS and diabetes and Alzheimer's and do stem-cell research," he said.

Many Republican politicians also support embryonic stem-cell research, including dozens of senators and congressmen who signed letters to the president last month urging him to change his policies. But Bush has not budged, because he sees the practice as morally troublesome.

The Kerry campaign may see the issue as a way to appeal to moderate voters, according to Matthew Nisbet of Ohio State University, who tracks public opinion on stem-cell research. "This is one of the clear areas where the Democrats can say that their platform is substantially different from the Republicans," he says. "They can draw a distinction, making the Republicans look narrow-minded and dogmatic."

Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the Washington-based American Society for Cell Biology, supports embryonic stem-cell research and is pleased, so far, at the public debate, which he characterizes as slow and thoughtful. But he is wary of how the vying presidential candidates will treat the issue. "I worry that it could become a victim of the national campaigns," he says. "A lot of the time, issues are talked about in shorthand."


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