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First Lady Joins Stem Cell Debate

First lady Laura Bush defended her husband's policy on embryonic stem cell research Monday, arguing that it is an ethical and moral issue "that must not be treated lightly" by political critics.

On the third anniversary of President Bush's decision to restrict research to 78 embryonic stem cell lines in existence, the first lady suggested that his opponents – including John Kerry and members of former President Reagan's family – have overstated its potential benefits.

"I hope that stem cell research will yield cures," the first lady told the Pennsylvania Medical Society. "But I know that embryonic stem cell research is very preliminary right now and the implication that cures for Alzheimer's are around the corner is just not right and it's really not fair to people who are watching a loved one suffer with this disease."

Reagan, the conservative icon, died June 5 of pneumonia related to his decade-long battle with Alzheimer's disease — an illness that also contributed to the death of Laura Bush's father in the 1990s.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan has called for the restrictions to be lifted, and last month 58 senators from both parties asked the president to, also. The former president's son, Ron Reagan, spoke out against the Bush policy at the Democratic National Convention, urging delegates to cast a vote for stem cell research in November — a tacit endorsement of Democrat John Kerry.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that form during the early days after conception and can turn into any tissue in the body. Many scientists hope to one day harness them to grow replacement tissue to treat diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other diseases.

But because culling stem cells kills the embryo, which many religious groups oppose, Mr. Bush signed an executive order in August 2001 limiting research to the existing lines.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards criticized Mr. Bush's policy Monday, complaining that the Republican had allowed ideology to set the parameters for scientific research.

"If we have a chance to make progress and cure diseases; if we have new medical breakthroughs that could improve millions of lives, then what's stopping us?" Edwards asked.

Kerry, Edwards and his campaign aides frequently refer to Bush's ban on stem cell research. While Mr. Bush's policy dramatically restricts potential research, it does not ban it. He has allowed research on existing lines.

"The president's policy makes it possible for researchers to explore the potential of stem-cell (research) while respecting the ethical and moral implications associated with this research," Laura Bush said.

The administration said Mr. Bush is the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research, which is true but only because the science has only come to maturity during his tenure. President Clinton's policy would have paid for research using stem cell lines created at any time.

Laura Bush said the administration has invested $25 million in stem cell research.

Kerry has frequently said he will expand such research.

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