By Don C. Reed, www.stemcellbattles.com
Shockingly, former First Lady Nancy Reagan was not invited to President Obama’s historic reversal of the Bush stem cell restrictions.
To understand what a colossal blunder that was, remember back to 2003, and the letter which galvanised a nation.
This was a dark hour for stem cell research. President Bush had slammed the door on federal funding for new stem cell lines. Even more seriously, for the first time in American history, a law had actually been proposed to put scientists in jail for medical research. The penalty for any scientist, doctor, patient or parent involved in Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT, sometimes called therapeutic cloning) would have been ten years in jail and a million dollar fine.
Therapeutic cloning (of cells) is different from reproductive cloning (to make babies) just as a lightbulb is different from a lightning bolt. One starts forest fires; the other is a light in darkness. We do not ban electricity because one form of it can be harmful. We all agree: the cloning of children would be dangerous to child and mother, and should not be allowed. But the copying of cells may help us in the fight against incurable disease.
President Bush “enthusiastically” (his word) supported the Weldon/Brownback law to make SCNT a criminal offense.
But a fragile wisp of a woman from California had other ideas.
Nancy Reagan knew what was at stake.
Her husband, former President Ronald Reagan had once been the most powerful man on earth.
But he did not demonize the opposition. President Reagan was famous for being able to talk to people he disagreed with. He used to end a work day by having a drink with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic leader—and he, a strong conservative pro-life Republican, married a woman said to be pro-choice.
Agree with his politics or not, you could not hear him speak and not be moved. When he said to the leader of Russia, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it was history—and the Berlin Wall came down.
He had a beautiful voice, and the professional actor’s command of language. He got his first job in broadcasting by acting out an imaginary football game, calling the plays and naming the players, in such a lively cheerful manner he was hired on the spot.
But now the golden voice was stilled. Even a President is not immune from the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. The memory which could once recall literally thousands of names, so that if he met you once he could remember you always—that light was darkened.
Nancy Reagan knew cure could not come in time to save her husband.
But she also knew that there were millions of other families who suffered, unable to help their loved ones. And for them, she would speak.
She took a stand: against the official position of her party, and opposing George Bush, President of the United States.
She sent an open letter to Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, himself under fire for his courageous stand in support of SCNT.
Most people have only read the famous last two sentences.
Here is the actual letter. It may surprise you.
“Office of Nancy Reagan, open letter to Senator Orrin Hatch:
As you may know, Ronnie will observe his ninety-second birthday soon. In earlier times, we would have been able to celebrate that day with great joy and wonderful memories of our life together. Now, while I can draw strength from these memories, I do it alone, as Ronnie struggles in a world unknown to me or the scientists who devote their lives to Alzheimer’s research. Because of this, I am determined to do what I can to save other families from this pain.
I’m writing, therefore, to offer my support for stem cell research and to tell you I’m in favor of new legislation to allow the ethical use of therapeutic cloning. (emphasis added—dr) Like you, I support a complete ban on reproductive cloning. However, I believe that embryonic stem cell research, under appropriate guidelines, may provide our scientists with many answers that are now beyond our grasp.
Orrin, there are so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped, that we can’t turn our back on this. We’ve lost so much time already. I can’t bear to lose any more.”
–January 29, 2003
That letter broke the logjam. If the wife of one of America’s most beloved Presidents could support not only embryonic stem cell research—but also therapeutic cloning– maybe it was worth looking into.
Behind the scenes she helped even more, visiting with prominent Republican leaders, (I believe it was she who persuaded former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to also come out strongly in favor of therapeutic cloning) encouraging, educating, persuading.
And not in vain.
The bill to criminalize therapeutic cloning was defeated. And the Stem Cell Research Expansion Act was passed by both houses of Congress with a strong bipartisan majority—twice.
True, the positive bill was vetoed twice by Mr. Bush.
But the principle of scientific freedom was protected. America did not break its long tradition of honoring science. No scientists were put in jail.
And now at last, we have a President who promised to reverse the Bush restrictions.
March 9th, 2009, was the moment when President Obama fulfilled that promise, and signed the document. I had the good fortune to be invited: Roman, Gloria and I were in the room when our new President put America back on track, reversing the Bush ban on new stem cell lines.
There were of course, many who deserved to be there—thousands! All the unknown advocates who never make the paper, but who do the work to make change possible—they deserved to be there. Every scientist who ever took the long view and struggled with a near impossibility, working long hours on something to small to see without a microscope, and knowing all the time his or her efforts might be in vain. The room would have had to be as large as a state to get everyone in, who deserved to be there.
But above all, Nancy Reagan deserved to be there. Her absence was a shocking omission. Somehow, her name was left off the guest list for that moment of history.
She was nice about it, not even mentioning it until an interviewer directly questioned her about it, in an upcoming article in Vanity Fair magazine:
“She feels President Obama missed an opportunity when he did not invite her to the ceremony announcing his reversal of Bush’s policy on embryonic-stem-cell research. “I would have gone, and you know I don’t like to travel,” she tells (article author) Colacello. “Politically it would have been a good thing for him to do. Oh, well, nobody’s perfect. He called and thanked me for working on it. But he could have gotten more mileage out of it.”—VF, found on line June 1, 2009.
It made no difference that the list of invitees to the White House was almost certainly made up by new and overstressed employees, folks who through no fault of their own were not connected to the stem cell world.
Nancy Reagan had been there for us when it really counted.
Something had to be done to make things right.
There would be a statue honoring former President Ronald Reagan. President Obama had spoken about the statue, and he had mentioned Nancy Reagan’s advocacy for stem cell research. He spoke from the heart, with eloquence and clarity. But that was on the other side of the country, and Nancy Reagan was not there.
But California has two strong women who share a name, and a belief in stem cell research.
Enter Nancy Pelosi, America’s first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. There is a postcard with a painting of her as “Rosie the Riveter”, the World War II factory worker, over the words, “A woman’s place is in the House—as Speaker”.
Nancy Pelosi had led the charge to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, not once, but twice. When that bill comes back again, I am quite sure she will lead it again, and this time to victory. She is a fighter who won’t give up. She may get knocked down, but she will get up and come back, again and again.
California flat loves her.
Speaker Pelosi knows stem cell research can only advance as a unified field, full stem cell research, not just the narrow approach favored by the former President. (At the close of this article is a short speech she made in 2005: her best on the subject.)
In California, Nancy Pelosi stepped up to the mike.
“Mrs. Reagan, with your presence here today, I hope you know that we honor you. Not only for your support of the President, but for turning that support and love into action. Your support for stem cell research has made a significant difference in the lives of many American people. It has saved lives, it has found cures, it has given hope to people.”
She spoke for America.
There was a picture taken, a moment afterwards. The two women are standing close, and Nancy Pelosi is gently brushing away a tear from Mrs. Reagan’s face.
Both of them.
P.S. Here is the speech I told you about earlier.
Pelosi: ‘With Great Potential of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Science has Power to Answer the Prayers of America’s Families
Washington, D.C. – House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on the House floor this afternoon in support of H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005. The bipartisan bill will increase the number of stem cell lines that are eligible for federally funded research. Below are Pelosi’s remarks:
“This is a critical day for us in Congress. I am deeply indebted to Congresswoman Diana DeGette and Congressman Mike Castle for their great leadership in bringing this bipartisan legislation to the floor.
“This is significant legislation because every family in America is just one phone call away, one diagnosis, one accident away from needing the benefits of stem cell research. We want all of the research to proceed — the umbilical cord research, adult stem cell research, that’s all very important. But we must have the embryonic stem cell research if we are truly going to be able to have science have the potential it has to cure diseases. (emphasis added—dr)
“I’ve served for 10 years on the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health. I’ve studied this issue through the years, and what we are doing here today is recognizing the miraculous power to cure that exists at the National Institutes of Health and at other institutes of excellence in research throughout our country.
“We are recognizing the miraculous, almost biblical, power that science has to cure. And we are here today to say that when these embryos are in excess of the needs of in vitro fertilization, rather than be destroyed, they should be used for basic biomedical research.
“When I first came to the Congress, some of the same people who were against embryonic stem cell research were very much against in vitro fertilization. It’s hard to imagine that now, but they were against in vitro fertilization and considered it not to be on high moral ground.
“The research is going to occur with federal funding or without. It should not occur without high ethical standards that the federal funding can bring to it.
“In order for our country to be pre-eminent in science, we must have the most talented, the most excellent scientists. They will not be attracted to a situation that limits scientific inquiry. As we all know, in science as in business, talent attracts capital, capital that builds all the labs that are needed to do research. And those labs in return attract those excellent scientists, which makes us first in the world, pre-eminent in science.
“I’m particularly proud of my state of California. The people of California in a bipartisan way, as we are doing today, voted a commitment of resources to invest in embryonic stem cell research. We in California will become the regenerative capital of America, indeed probably the world.
“This should be happening all over the country; it shouldn’t depend on the local initiative of the state. It should be coming from the leadership of the federal government with the ethical standards that go with it.
“To some, this debate may seem like a struggle between faith and science. While I have the utmost respect for those who oppose this bill on moral grounds, I believe that faith and science have at least one thing in common: both are searches for truth. America has room for both faith and science.
“Indeed, with the great potential of embryonic stem cell research, science has the power to answer the prayers of America’s families. I believe strongly in the power of prayer, but part of that prayer is for a cure, and science can provide that.
“Many religious leaders endorse this bill because of their respect for life and because they believe science, within the bounds of ethics and religious beliefs, can save lives and improve its quality. Groups as diverse as the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America all support this bill.
“The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization, wrote: ‘The traditional Jewish perspective emphasizes the potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life.’
“The Episcopal Church in its letter in support of this legislation says, ‘As stewards of creation, we are called to help mend and renew the world in many ways. The Episcopal Church celebrates medical research and this research expands our knowledge of God’s creation and empowers us to bring potential healing to those who suffer from disease and disability.’
“It is our duty to bring hope to the sick and the disabled, not to bind the hands of those who can bring them hope. I believe God guided our researchers to discover the stem cell’s power to heal.”
– Nancy Pelosi, Tuesday, May 24, 2005