IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ron Reagan defends stem cell research

It was a topic so important to Ron Reagan that even as he was mourning his father's death, he wanted to speak out.  Stem cell research is steeped in controversy. Some critics say it destroys human life, but proponents say it could offer millions of sick or injured people a new life.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It was a topic so important to Ron Reagan that even as he was mourning his father's death, he wanted to speak out. He gave a major speech Tuesday night at the Democratic convention, pushing for an increase in federal funding for stem cell research. It's a relatively new field of science that's steeped in controversy. Some critics say it destroys human life, but proponents say it could offer millions of sick or injured people a new life.

Jesse Billauer was in love with the Pacific.

Jesse Billauer: "I grew up by the beach. So all my friends were really into the water. And luckily one of my friends asked me to go surfing with him and it was just love at first try. And I never wanted to get out of the water."

By age nine, he was already hopelessly addicted. Soon he was a champion surfer, a true prince of tides. He became a state lifeguard. But one day, Jesse was chasing a perfect wave when something went wrong.

Billauer: "A wave hit me in my back and went head first into a sand bar. And my whole bottom went numb and tingly. I knew at that moment that something really wrong. I knew I was paralyzed because I never had this sensation in my life."

That was eight years ago.

Josh Mankiewicz: "Is there any hope that you'll be able to walk again?"

Billauer: "There's lots a hope. Lots of hope. It's going to happen."

Mankiewicz: "And you say that because you have this great attitude?"                  

Billauer: "I just say that because I'm 25 years old. There's a lot of research going on, a lot of doctors working on different areas to make sure that one day people in my situation will be able to walk again."

It's a hope he shares with actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed when he was thrown from a horse, with actor Michael J. Fox, who's fighting Parkinson's disease, and with Ron Reagan, who watched his father slip away, stricken with Alzheimer's.

Ron Reagan: "I think that the government should launch an Apollo style program to investigate embryonic stem cell research."

Ron Reagan is an MSNBC contributor and a member of the Hardball election team. But Tuesday night he'll make the case for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on national television at the Democratic convention.

Reagan: "This is like magic. This could revolutionize medicine."

Stem cells are the foundation cells for every part of the human body. Because they're blank or so-called undifferentiated cells, they're a kind of clean slate that can be programmed in different ways. The idea is that stem cells could be programmed to regenerate tissue, meaning that instead of transplanting organs, doctors might be able to simply implant stem cells which would join a spinal cord back together, or heal burns, arthritis, blindness, or a malfunctioning heart.

But right now that kind of real-life stem cell therapy is no more than a potential breakthrough. And long before it can ever change the world of medicine, the use of human stem cells will have to navigate the debate over reproductive freedom. Because although stem cells are found in small numbers in the adult body and from the umbilical cord blood of newborns, they are also harvested from fertilized human embryos, stem cells have become the place where science, religion, and politics collide.

President Bush, who opposes abortion, also opposes the destruction of human embryos in the name of medical advancement, and his administration reversed a Clinton-era policy of providing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, allowing government money to be spent only on stem-cell lines which were already in existence at the time.

Mankiewicz: "Can you blame conservatives? Can you blame evangelicals for not wanting to have the federal government subsidize something that destroys human life?"

Reagan: "They don't believe in…That's how you might put it and they might put it. One of the distinctions -- intelligence is that we can make distinctions. And I don't think that many people, even evangelical Christians, are faced with the choice of saving of a life of a child, and preserving a collection of undifferentiated cells would flip a coin. They would save the child. They would see that there is a distinction between a living, breathing child, with a mind, with memories, with hopes, with a family and friends. And this bundle of cells that had no mind, no consciousness, feels no pain, is not a human being. There is a difference."

Mankiewicz: "I can get on the phone right now, and within five minutes, find someone who would say in response to that argument, you can't destroy life in order to save it, or to help it, or to—"

Reagan: "We do it all the time. We do it all the time. We're fighting a war right now to save lives aren't we?  We're in Iraq bombing the bejesus out of people to save American lives so in the long run -- so, the idea that we don't sacrifice lives to save lives is on the face of it a specious argument."

Dr. Leon Kass: "Many Americans believe that the destruction of human embryos is morally wrong. This policy has found a reasonable way to allow the research to proceed without violating what we owe to nascent human life."

Dr. Kass is chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and a Hertog fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Kass: "It's simply wrong to say that we have placed a brake on stem cell research in this country. The Bush policy has opened the door for the very first time. There are very few experiments that anybody would like to do in this country that cannot be done with the existing stem cell lines."

Many researchers disagree with that and say the administration's policy is holding back medical advancement. Although the White House recommended we speak with him, Dr. Kass says he's speaking for himself. He also says that stem cells may never deliver on their promise.

Kass: "One of the terrible things that's going on, and it's all of this hype and politics, is that people are cruelly exploiting the hopes of patients and their families."

Reagan: "It is possible that as research goes forward, we will find out that through whatever reason, this won't work. But, we won't know until we try of course. And how do you say that people who suffer from Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis and diabetes and all these other diseases, yeah, it looked promising, but you know, politically it was sort of a tough call. So, we decided not to do it at all. And that just seems wrong."

Mankiewicz: "You know, it can also be argued that it's cruel to sort of cut the hope of those people by allowing scientific advancement to be hostage to the right to life movement."

Kass: "That's rather unfair. It is not only the right to life movement that has a concern about how we treat  nascent human life. It is also important that we protect the vulnerability of human life at all of its stages. And it is nationally important that we not alienate large portions of our fellow citizens, some of whom think that this is the equivalent to taking a life."

Dr. Kass points out that the president's position is a compromise that allows research to continue and creates no law at all to governing private funding and research.

The hope and promise and the fierce debate- that's generated by stem cells is only a little more than 20 years old. It grew from advances in in-vitro fertilization, in which many more embryos are created than usually needed by a couple seeking to have a baby. The unused embryos, scientists thought, could be harvested for their stem cells. But opponents, led by the Catholic Church,  have fought that.

Mankiewicz: "How did you and other scientists not see that a debate about stem cells, embryonic stem cells, was inevitably going to involve some of the same arguments made pro and con on abortion, that it involves destroying human life to save or help another life?"

Dr. Ann Kiessling: "Right. We did see it. And it's really been unfortunate that as a country we haven't had this debate before."

Dr. Kiessling is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a leading authority on stem cells.

Mankiewicz: "And your view of that is we should go ahead? Religious concerns not withstanding?"

Kiessling: "I don't think you can set aside anybody's religious concerns. I think that's something that we really have to pay attention to. Millions and millions of Americans believe life begins at fertilization. I don't think that can be ignored."

Kiessling says the discussion doesn't need to be only about fertilized embryos.

Kiessling: "But I don't think that everyone is aware that you don't need to fertilize the egg to use the innate capability is has to create stem cells. It's a very unusual cell that we don't understand very well. But it doesn't have to be fertilized for the therapeutic uses."

Kass: "This is a kind of Orwellian way of twisting the language. What they're talking about is creating a cloned human embryo. You take an egg, you take out its nucleus, you put in a nucleus from a nucleus donor. You grow it up to the same stage that you get an in-vitro embryo, five or six days. It's a cloned embryo. It's still an embryo if you put it into a woman's uterus, it might become a cloned baby."

Kiessling: "An activated egg has never been reported to give rise to a human being. It can't make a baby. It can't make a baby without a sperm."

It is amid that back-and forth debate that Ron Reagan decided to stop commenting on the news and start making it. Tuesday night, he'll trade on his family name to get the push for stem-cell dollars in the headlines.

Mankiewicz: "Isn't it possible, maybe even likely that your father would have opposed this kind of research?"

Reagan: "Anything is possible. And I don't speak for my father. My father has passed away and I cannot speak for him. My mother knows him better than anybody else. And better than anybody ever did. And she seems to think that he would have supported this."

He freely admits that of all the diseases that might one day benefit from stem-cell therapy, Alzheimer’s, which struck down President Reagan, is nowhere near the top of the list. Ron says he and his mother are prepared to lobby together for funding, no matter who wins the election.

Reagan: "Maybe the Democrats are using me. Wouldn't that be shocking? But you know what? I'm using them. You know? And all these people that have been taking shots at me lately for doing this thing. As long as they spell embryonic stem cell correctly, I don't care. It's fine. It puts the issue in the public eye, and that's the only reason I'm doing this."

It's a debate Jesse Billauer probably won't be watching. He can't get back on his feet right now. But he's doing his best to get back in the water.

Mankiewicz: "What's it like to know that your future and a decision that could possibly change your future in a huge way is going to be decided not as much by scientists, but by politicians?"                               

Billauer: "To me it's amazing because a lot of these people that are making decisions aren't in wheelchairs and aren't people that are directly affected by spinal cord injuries or whatnot. It's tough to have somebody help you out 24 hours, seven days a week. It's a huge difference. And a lot of those people who make the decisions don't realize that, that this cure and therapy are going to one day make people's lives and independence the way they were and the way it should be."