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Inside Politics

Nancy Reagan breaks ranks for personal cause

Former first lady at odds with Bush over stem cell research

By Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

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Nancy Reagan
Ronald Wilson Reagan
George W. Bush
Medical Research

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When a conservative icon breaks ranks with President Bush on an important policy, it's not just news -- it's the political Play of the Week.

And that's what Nancy Reagan did in her recent comments in support of stem cell research.

In August 2001, after lengthy deliberation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, Bush issued an executive order banning the use of federal funds to harvest new lines of stem cells for medical research.

Scientists complained that the president's policy -- backed by the anti-abortion movement -- chokes off research that shows promise of one day finding cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's disease -- the terrible malady that afflicts former President Reagan.

Mrs. Reagan wrote to Bush in 2001, saying she hoped sparing other families the pain she had suffered would be part of her husband's legacy. She allowed that fact to become public.

Since then, she has discreetly lobbied White House officials and members of Congress and allowed her views to be known.

Bush has shown no intention of changing his position. "I oppose the use of federal funds for the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research," he declared in March.

Meanwhile, a brush fire has been spreading across the country.

Last month, 206 members of Congress signed a letter calling on Bush to relax the restrictions on stem cell research. Among the signers from both parties were conservative abortion opponents, such as Reps. Duke Cunningham of California and Don Young of Alaska.

In California, more than a million voters have signed petitions to put an initiative on the November ballot that would use state funds to underwrite stem cell research.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, recently inaugurated a stem cell research institute. "This appropriation proudly makes New Jersey the first state in the nation to devote public funds to stem cell research," he said Wednesday.

And last week, Nancy Reagan spoke out publicly for the first time on the issue. "Now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp," Reagan told an audience in Los Angeles, California. "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this."

Mrs. Reagan's staked out a compassionate position. Bush's position sits well with conservatives.

The "compassionate conservative" president must choose one or the other. But Mrs. Reagan gets the political Play of the Week.

In the conservative pantheon of heroes, there may be only one name that can trump President Bush. And that's Ronald Reagan.

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