The Bush White House is notoriously loath to back down or admit error, but with the death of former President Ronald Reagan it has an opportunity to ease a policy that is unfairly restrictive.
Three years ago, President Bush restricted federally funded stem-cell research to 78 stem-cell lines then thought to be in existence, but scientists say only 19 lines are actually available for research and that these may be contaminated.
Stem-cell research has great promise for preventing diseases like Alzheimer's, which claimed the last 10 years of Reagan's life. His widow, former first lady Nancy Reagan, is now an outspoken advocate of stem-cell research. Easing the restrictions would be a graceful acknowledgement of her grief and the grueling experience loved ones of Alzheimer's victims endure.
Emotionally, it is the right moment to act and the political support is there, too.
By coincidence, the day before Reagan's death, 58 senators, a majority, wrote to the president urging the restrictions be eased. They were mostly Democrats but included 14 Republicans. In April, 206 House members, just shy of a majority, sent a similar letter. Again, most were Democrats but 36 Republicans also signed. A nod from the White House would surely bring more Republicans aboard.
The White House says it stands by the policy; that it will not see embryos created only to be destroyed. But there is a fine but important line here. Under discussion are frozen embryos — as many as 400,000 — that were created not for destruction but for in vitro fertilization by couples hoping to become pregnant. The in vitro process creates more embryos than are needed, and these, barring a change in policy allowing their use in research, will be destroyed.
Under the current restrictions, stem-cell research is being conducted by private labs and, increasingly, overseas, all outside of federal oversight. If the policy is eased, the National Institutes of Health would be a responsible watchdog, and there is nothing that says it has to fund every stem-cell research proposal that comes in the door.
There are no guarantees that this research will fulfill its promise — the prevention and cure of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis; the repair of spinal-cord injuries — but that promise is so abundant it warrants a change of mind by the White House.