Ronald Reaganís Legacy

June 21, 2004

Howard Dean

By Gov. Howard Dean M.D.

Most Americans would agree that Ronald Reagan had some solid accomplishments as president, although the rush by the rightwing to put his face on the ten dollar bill or on Mt. Rushmore seems a bit hasty. Ironically, one of his greatest accomplishments may occur after his death, and that is the extraordinary effort by his wife, Nancy, to use the circumstances of his death to educate people about the benefits of stemcell research.

Let me be clear about this, I am a Democrat and was not a fan of the Reagan administrationís policies. But over the last ten years, no American could fail to admire the exceptional courage of Mrs. Reagan as she lived what must have been a very difficult existence watching her husband inexorably lose all his mental faculties, unable to even recognize his wife.

Mrs. Reagan also seems to understand how exceptionally difficult life must be for the thousands of other American families who do not have the support systems accorded to ex-presidents and how important hope is to all those families. Hope takes the form of a potential cure, which means hope requires medical research, which some religious authorities may not like. Mrs. Reagan has the courage to stand up against the anti-scientific biases of many in the Republican Party and to call for science to be respected and hope to be restored.

There is no guarantee that stem cell research can produce a cure for Alzheimer's disease. But stemcells show promise by helping to prevent or cure chronic and life-shortening diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and various cardiac diseases.

Many Republicans continue to link stem cell research to the abortion debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos which have been created for the purpose of helping infertile couples have children. In this process, a few embryos may be implanted in a woman's uterus, to be born nine months later. A much larger number of embryos will be frozen for future use. The vast majority of these will ultimately be discarded. But, these discarded embryos can produce something good, they can potentially save the life or health of a stranger. Stem cells, the basis of all the cells in our body, can be saved from these embryos, and can become tissue which can potentially replace diseased tissue in human beings who are suffering greatly, as President Reagan did. Or these embryos can be discarded, as they usually are now.

What Mrs. Reagan and other advocates of stem cell research are asking is that the embryos be put to humanitarian and scientific uses, instead of being wasted. Perhaps the research will fail. But, if we do not try, we will never know. President Bush has confined stem cell research to such a few cell-lines, which makes most American research meaningless.

Most of the research is now going on in other countries, with a few exceptions in the U.S., such as wealthy universities that can afford to refuse federal funding. This means that Americans who suffer these diseases will be last in line to get the benefits of this potentially extraordinary research. It also means a generation of American scientists and doctors will fall behind their foreign counterparts in using whatever lifesaving technologies come out of this research.

As a physician, I am embarrassed that America would willingly and deliberately choose to set aside science and the hope it offers. As a Democrat, I say to Nancy Reagan, I'll do whatever I can to help you win this one for the Gipper.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates.
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Copyright 2004 Howard Dean, All Rights Reserved.
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