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Rights to Research and the Stem Cell Debate

Citizen Action

Stem Cells and the 2004 Presidential Election

Stem Cells and the Creation of a new type of Citizen Scienctist


        The debate regarding to what extent embryonic stem cell research should be restricted, is what has made embryonic stem cell research into a political issue. For political parties, stem cell research becomes a good talking point because the issue hits an emotional nerve with many Americans. A Gallop poll commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association found that 1 in 10 Americans said they had a family member with Alzheimer’s and 1 in 3 Americans said they knew someone with Alzheimer’s disease.[1] If these Americans knew that embryonic stem cell research could potentially cure their loved one or friend with Alzheimer’s disease, it is very likely that if educated about the issue, they would support stem cell research. It is because of this emotional connection that stem cells have become politicized and have become a political issue.

Stem Cells and the 2004 Presidential Election

Stem cell science did not really emerge as a political talking point until the 2004 Presidential primaries. It was during the Democratic primaries that the issue of stem cell research emerged and it was an issue that continued to dominate election discourse until Election Day in November of 2004. The issue of stem cell research as a point of political contention was aggravated by the death of former President Ronald Reagan on June 5th 2004. Reagan died due to complications of Alzheimer’s, weeks before the Democratic National Convention. His death brought the issue of stem cell research to the forefront of ethical debates during the summer months of 2004. The politicization of stem cell research occurred when Reagan family members spoke out to the general public on two occasions about the merits and the importance of stem cell research. Nancy Reagan spoke in favor of lifting the Bush restrictions shortly before and after her husband’s passing.  [2] 

Nancy Reagans first public denouncement of the Bush restrictions occurred just a month before her husband’s death. In a speech to the Juvenile DiabetesResearch Fund in Hollywood, Mrs. Reagan came out strongly for embryonic ste  cell research and argued that embryonic stem cells could lead to a cure for  Alzheimer’s.[3] Mrs. Reagans speech was politically important  because it took the partisan issue out of stem cell debate and added a conservative, republican voice for unrestricted stem cell research.

Two months later Ron Reagan Jr. followed in his mother’s footsteps when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in July of 2004. Although Mr. Reagan opened his speech by asserting that he did not want the issue to be politicized, his presence at the DNC implied the contrary. Ron Reagan stood before the delegates at the DNC and spoke about a young woman with juvenile diabetes who would benefit from the continuation of publicly funded embryonic stem cell research.[4] Mr. Reagan also raised the ethical question of which life was more important, the one that had feelings and a family or the one that did not even have a heart beat.[5] The addition of the Reagan’s to the stem cell debate raised the issue’s political profile in the 2004 presidential election. But the Reagan’s were not the only people with star power appealing to the political arena on stem cell research. Many stars, including Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeves, took on the role of citizen scientist in order to fight for federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

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Stem Cells and the creation of a new type of citizen Scientist

            In 2000, shortly after retiring from the television show Spin City and two years after he publicly disclosed that he had been diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease seven years earlier, actor Michael J. Fox founded the Michael J. Fox foundation for Parkinson’s Research.[6] According to the foundations web site, “The foundation aims at finding a cure to Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda.”[7] Between 2000 and 2005 the foundation has funded $70 million worth of research and Mr. Fox has advocated for continued federal funding concerning stem cell research in congress.[8] The issue of embryonic stem cell research is an issue that lends itself to the citizen science movement. A person does not have to be Michael J. Fox in order to make a difference when it comes to embryonic stem cell research, but rather just needs to feel motivated and have a sense of duty toward a cause. There are over ten organizations that view human embryonic stem cells as the best way to cure a certain disease and each of these programs has a research fund begging for donations. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation asks for money on over four places on their website.[9] The JDRF website urges aspiring citizen scientists concerned with finding a cure to juvenile diabetes that the most effective way to become active in finding a cure is to support the cause through donating to the JDRF so that they can fund private research ventures. This approach of involving citizens in the movement to bypass the restrictions placed on the development of new embryonic stem cell lines is a new type of citizen science that was born out of cyber campaigning and fundraising.  In the coming years it will be interesting to watch as this new side line type of citizen science takes form and possibly succeeds in producing a breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research. The politicization of science by movie stars, citizens and politicians has helped raise awareness and foster a citizen science movement around reproductive stem cell research.

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[1] “Fact Sheet: Alzheimer’s disease Statistics.” Alzheimer’s Association.   <> Accessed 4/16/06.

[2] Mooney, Chris 192.

[3] “Nancy Regan Plea on Stem Cell Research.” BBC News. <> accessed on 4/16/06

[4] Regan, Ron. “Text of Ron Regan’s speech as prepared for delivery July 27, 2004 at the Democratic National Convention.” The Diabetes Monitor. <> accessed on 4/16/06

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinon’s Research.” <> accessed on 4/16/06.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid

[9]“The Juvenile Diabetes research Foundation.”  <> accessed on 4/16/06.

Figure 10: "Are you Pro-cure? Wear the wrist Band." <> accessed 4/30/06

Figure 11: "Nancy Reagan Plea on Stem Cells." BBC News <> accessed 4/30/06

Figure 12: "Reagan Calls For Increased Stem cell Research." Cnn.Com.
<> accessed 4/30/06

figure 13: "About Micahel." The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. <>.

a pro-cure wrist band for stem cell research awarness
Figure 10

Michael J. Fox and Former first Lady Nancy Reagan.
Figure 11

Ron Reagan Jr. at the Democratic National
 Convention in 2004.
Figure 12

Michael J. Fox advocating for federal funding for Stem Cell Research in Congress
Figure 13

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