First lady calls Kerry stem cell criticism 'ridiculous'

LANGHORNE, Pa. (AP) - First lady Laura Bush, defending her husband's policy on embryonic stem cell research, accuses proponents of overstating the potential for medical breakthroughs and says it is "ridiculous" for John Kerry to claim the president has banned the research.

"We don't even know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything - much less that it's very close" to yielding major advances, she said Monday.

Her remarks came on the third anniversary of Bush's decision to limit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to the 78 stem cell lines in existence on Aug. 9, 2001.

Religious groups oppose the scientific work in which culling of stem cells kill the embryos, equating that with abortion. They did not want Bush to be the first president to fund the research - even with limits.

Proponents, including former first lady Nancy Reagan and 58 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, argue the research could lead to cures to diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's. Former President Reagan suffered from the latter for a decade before his death June 5 due to related pneumonia.

Only a fraction of those initial 78 stem cell lines - 21 at last count - are yet available to researchers because of problems with the lines' growth or their ownership. In March, a National Institutes of Health count cast doubt on how many ultimately would be usable.

Proponents and members of the medical community say more than 100 new cell lines have been created worldwide since Bush's decision - some with new techniques that may make them more scientifically useful. An exact count isn't possible because private funding means much of the work is done without any public scrutiny.

With polls showing overwhelming support for stem cell research, Kerry has promised to give scientists more freedom. He has used the word ban to describe Bush's actions when what the president has done is limit the research.

"That's so ridiculous," Laura Bush said in an interview with The Associated Press, calmly fielding questions about her husband and his presidential race. "It's one of the myths that start during a campaign."

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Bush's restrictions apply to 99.9 percent of potential stem cell lines that could be studied. "If that's not a ban," he said, "we don't know what is."

But Mrs. Bush insisted Kerry was trying to make a political issue out of her husband's policy "without saying what's right. I imagine he knows better."

Like other Bush-Cheney campaign surrogates, Mrs. Bush credited her husband with being the first president to use taxpayer money for the research. That is true, perhaps only because the science is so new. The policy of Democratic President Clinton allowed taxpayer money to be used in the research of any stem cell lines, but he never funded the nascent research. Bush invested $25 million in limited research.

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said Monday marked "a sad anniversary" because the Bush administration "put restrictions in place that dramatically undermine our efforts to find cures for diseases."

In a speech to the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which endorsed her husband, Mrs. Bush said policy-makers must be aware of the "ethical and moral implications" of the research.

"I hope that stem cell research will yield cures," the first lady said. "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."

She said later it's not fair to raise false hopes "because stem cell research is very, very preliminary."

While Bush's action restricts federal dollars, it does not stop private funding of any stem cell research. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. George Q. Daley, a leading stem cell researcher, said research has struggled without federal funds.


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