What hope does embryonic stem cell research hold for people who suffer from debilitating diseases? What place does the regard for human life play in scientific research? After Ron Reagan's speech to the Democratic convention, where he challenged Bush administration policy on embryonic stem cell research, we asked two scholars on either side of the debate to discuss the latest scientific and ethical issues.

Ronald M. Green, chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College, serves on the Ethics Advisory Board of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company.

Nigel Cameron is research professor of bioethics at Chicago-Kent College of Law and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.

Anyone who concluded from Ron Reagan's remarks that stem cells promise an imminent cure for Alzheimer's disease is mistaken. Stem cell transplant therapies for neurological diseases are still years away, and then most probably for conditions like Parkinson's disease. The damage caused by the buildup of diseased cells and plaques in Alzheimer's disease is so extensive that it is hard to see how any transplant could help.

Nevertheless, Ron Reagan is right for several reasons to stress the importance of stem cell research and to appeal for a change in current regulations.

First, a journey of many miles requires a first step. Research begun now with adequate federal support will undoubtedly lead to breakthroughs, some of them currently unanticipated. I fail to understand the logic of those who oppose research because the benefits are not presently obvious. Research is always a step into the unknown. You would not do research if you knew the answers.

Second, even though it is unlikely that stem cells will soon lead to therapeutic transplants, these technologies (including the use of biomedical cloning) can help us produce a series of model cell lines exhibiting the Alzheimer pathology. This will allow us to study the disease progression in the laboratory and better understand what goes wrong with neuronal functioning where the disease is present.

Such research could get underway in the near future if federally funded researchers had access to a much larger population of stem cells. It will very clearly not progress if federally funded research is confined to the 20 lines approved for use by the Bush administration.

Finally, in evaluating Ron Reagan's remarks, let's not forget that the opposition to this research is formidable. The opponents have managed to outlaw research using human embryos in this country for over 20 years. Sadly, the majority of Americans, who do not share the extremist views that drive this opposition, are largely unaware of this politics of obsruction. It is the nature of our political system that people are only stirred when they are awakened by alternate visions and dreams.

That's what Ron Reagan tried to do, and he should be applauded for his courage.

In his enthusiastic seconding of Reagan's call (which has helped land the hapless John Kerry with a policy that would not only permit the mass cloning of human embryos, but fund it) Ron Green perpetuates some deep misunderstandings that in someone less informed and sophisticated one might have been tempted to forgive.

He fails to grasp, or at least uncover, the thorough-going disingenuousness of the Reagan speech, which offers a full-blown call for human cloning while never coming close to using the word. The argument is not for a few extra embryos or a few extra dollars. It is for industrial-scale Dolly-style human manufacture. If "therapeutic cloning" is ever to be possible it will require hundreds of millions of human eggs, and the destruction of human embryos on a truly vast scale.

Moreover, Ron Green perpetuates some grave misunderstandings of the situation. For example, he claims that opponents of embryo research "have managed to outlaw research using human embryos in this country for over 20 years." One must suppose that he meant to say was that there has been no federal funding for such research. There are in fact no restrictions in federal law on embryo research.

Despite the fact that Senator John Kerry keeps speaking of a "wide-ranging ban" on embryo stem cell research, it was in fact George W. Bush who for the first time did fund such research, and who took a good deal of criticism from many conservatives for doing so. (I well remember being one of around a dozen conservatives in a National Press Club press conference, recorded for posterity on C-SPAN, the day after Bush's speech announcing the policy. I was the only one among them who supported the president's policy; the others all in some degree or other--some flagrantly--condemned it.) For better or for worse, President Clinton did not spend one dollar of taxpayer's money on embryo research. While some states have their own laws in place, in much of the U.S. privately funded embryo research has been legal all along, and is legal today.

That is why some of us are curious to know why it is that, given the extraordinarily hyped "promise" of embryonic stem cell research in the so-called "therapeutic cloning" model, venture capitalists--who make big, bold investments if they even come close to believing such things--have voted with their feet and given the most hyped science in history a pass. That of course is why so many in the bio-academic-industrial complex are desperate for dollars to fund their careers and their businesses, and why in California they have bankrolled the most bizarre proposition in the history of American democracy: a $6 billion pre-emption of the state budget to fund something that the market--which is increasingly the key to biotechnology--has deemed worth close on zero. Wanna buy a stock option in embryo stem cell research?

I am not saying this technology has no promise. What is clear (and what Ron Green basically admits) is that this is actually much more uncertain and much more distant than the Ron Reagan-Christopher Reeve-John Kerry rhetoric has led much of the American public to expect. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are far more advanced in research and have a proven capacity to work in people--in disease after disease, effective clinical trials are underway. How many Americans know these facts?

How many know the truth behind Ron Reagan Jr.'s most inflammatory and dishonest statement, that research cloning was opposed only by the "theology of the few"? What if I told you that Canada outlawed exactly that practice, in March of this year? That France followed suit in July? That Germany did it years ago; Australia and Norway more recently. Which of these nations, pray, is ruled by the "theology of the few"? Does the power of the U.S. pro-life movement and what Ron Green calls its "extremism" extend to the federal governments in Ottawa and Canberra, and the whole of "Old Europe"?

The Reagan-Kerry mischaracterisation of both current U.S. policy and of the wider debate about mass-production cloning does not augur well for democracy. Ron Green is welcome to nail his colors to the cloning mast, but he should first distance himself from these disingenuous presentations and agree that the facts are somewhat less friendly to his view than he implies.

Nigel Cameron makes several factual assertions I wish to correct.

Cameron says: "There are in fact no restrictions in federal law on embryo research."

Fact: In 1996, and for every year since, Republican-dominated Congresses have passed what is known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment to the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. This amendment prohibits federal funding for human-embryo research. Specifically, it prohibits funding for "the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes" as well as "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero" under existing federal regulations.

By virtue of this amendment, human embryos actually receive more protection in federal legislation than do born children. It is true that it does not prohibit embryo research funded by private sources. But the importance of federal funding in start-up areas is well known. If progress in understanding the causes of miscarriages has been significantly slowed, if an infertile couple must mortgage their home in order to try to have a baby through inefficient and costly infertility procedures, if the United States is becoming a backwater in stem cell research, blame Dickey-Wicker.

Cameron says: "For better or for worse, President Clinton did not spend one dollar of taxpayer's money on embryo research."

This statement is entirely misleading. Under Clinton, the NIH formed a panel in 1994 (on which I served) that recommended federal support for human embryo research, including research on embryonic stem cells. If the panel's advice had been heeded, we might be five years ahead in this research. President Clinton accepted almost all of our recommendations, but the Gingrich Congress and Dickey-Wicker shut everything down.

Cameron notes that Canada has outlawed research cloning in March as have France, Germany, Australia and Norway. "Which of these nations," Cameron asks, "is ruled by the 'theology of the few'? Does the power of the U.S. pro-life movement and what Ron Green calls its 'extremism' extend to the governments in Ottawa and Canberra, and the whole of 'Old Europe'?"

Yes. If Nigel looks carefully at the religious demography of his "world tour," he will find that in virtually every constituency he mentions, the prohibition on embryo research is carried by Roman Catholic and/or (conservative) Protestant groups--the same groups that now drive U.S. law and policy. A possible exception here is Germany, whose Catholic citizens are supplemented in this effort by many still haunted by Nazi eugenics. (The German law for the Protection of Embryos is one of the strictest in Europe.)

In contrast, in Great Britain, where a middle-of-the-road Protestant culture predominates, embryo research, including research on therapeutic cloning, is both legal and governmentally funded. In nations like India, China, Singapore, Korea, Israel, and India, where there are no substantial Catholic or conservative Protestant populations, this research is moving swiftly forward.

It is commonly said that stem cell research opponents are wrong to try to impose their theology--a "theology of the few"--on everyone else. That is true. What's more appalling is that so many of these people do not realize that they are being driven by their personal religious beliefs. Nigel's remarks shows how prevalent is the tendency not to perceive the potent role of parochial religious views in our national debates.

I can't remember when I last saw such a vivid illustration of Peter Berger's brilliant epigram on America and its religion than in Ron Green's dismissal of religious views as "parochial." Berger, our most distinguished sociologist, has said that the most religious nation in the world is India; the most secular is Sweden, and America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Berger's point is that the assumptions of American public culture are secular and grossly out of step with the deep religiousness of most of the American people.

But having dismissed religious views as parochial, Ron Green goes on to illustrate the role that religion is, as it were, required to play in this debate. It is evidently necessary to ascribe any and all opposition to mass-production cloning to parochial conservative religion. Why? Because if that can be done, there is then (given the assumptions of American public culture) no need to answer the arguments and address the moral force of those who see this as the first great global policy engagement of the "biotech century," and who have determined that the ethical health of biotechnology and the fundamental dignity of human beings require that it be won. That was exactly Ron Reagan Jr.'s disreputable strategy: blame it on religion, and it will go away; the health of the nation versus the "theology of the few."

But to do that Ron Green proposes a truly incredible thesis: that the total prohibitions on cloning recently passed in a clutch by Western nations result from pressure by adherents of that "theology"--pro-life "extremists." The notion that, for example, the policy of the French state is determined by "Roman Catholic and/or (conservative) Protestant groups, the same groups that now drive U.S. law and policy" is risible; France is widely recognized as the most secular major state in Western Europe, with church attendance so small it is hard to measure. As to the recent Canadian cloning ban, it was contained in an act of parliament that on several occasions nearly failed; its most vigorous opponent was the Canadian pro-life movement. (The Catholic bishops finally elected neutrality on the bill, and were promptly attacked by the pro-life movement for doing so). The notion that state policy in these countries is determined by "Roman Catholic and/or (conservative) Protestant groups" rather suggests that the theology of the few is the theology of the very many!

As it happens, the main driving force for a total cloning ban in many countries has been politically "progressive"; the Canadian bill that includes this provision was drafted and supported with particular encouragement from Canadian feminists, for example.

Which brings us back home, because here in the United States, an extraordinary coalition of forces has come together to seek a cloning ban, from all corners of American conscience and, specifically, from some of those most committed on both sides of the abortion debate. The strongly pro-choice United Methodist Church supports a total cloning ban. The president of Friends of the Earth and other environmentalists have taken the same view. A letter signed by over 100 feminist and progressive leaders seeks at least a serious moratorium, and signatories like Judy Norsigian of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, have testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Weldon-Stupak and Brownback-Landrieu cloning ban bills.

What is interesting is that there are widely differing views on the embryo-research issue in itself, but wide-ranging unanimity in opposition to the cloning of embryos to produce embryonic stem cells. The relevance of the international debate was recently brought to focus by a letter to Senator Kerry from a broad-based group of German political and civic leaders, including Rene Rospel, the Socialist chair of the Bundestag bioethics committee, and Green as well as conservative politicians, calling on the Senator to support the Bush cloning policy.

Instead, candidate Kerry, spurred on by Reagan Jr., moved swiftly from opposition to the Bush stem cell funding policy into full-throated endorsement of federally funded embryo farms, in what is the most striking instance to date of ethics policy by celebrity.

Two further points: Ron Green challenges my statement that there are in fact no restrictions in federal law on embryo research. This statement remains true, and unless there is a prohibition in state law, any lab in the nation is free to undertake research on embryos. The issue is funding. As Ron Green points out, the Dickey Amendment has been passed year by year to forbid the use of federal funding to support this research.

Secondly, I wrote that, "For better or for worse, President Clinton did not spend one dollar of taxpayer's money on embryo research." Green calls this statement misleading. It happens to be entirely true, and worth stating to make a rather significant historical point: that, pace the rhetoric of Senator Kerry and others, there has been no "ban" on embryo research instituted by President Bush. Au contraire, the decision by the Bush administration granted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research for the first time.

I do not suggest that President Clinton was to "blame" for this situation (as Green suggests I do). We know well that Clinton administration lawyers were working round the clock to find a way around the congressional funding ban passed annually in the Dickey amendment. But it was President Bush who, with some political adroitness, opened the way for this to be done.

Ron Green notes rightly that Germany has the most restrictive laws in these issues, though he notes it as if it were merely an anomaly. It is, in fact, a beacon to the watching world, an incandescent warning to the rest of us of what can happen when science and ethics become detached and demagogues are free to marginalize the "theology of the few" even as they ride hard across the conscience of the many. As Germans from left and right, religious and secular, survey the prospect of the biotech century, they need no reminding of how high the stakes are piled. We could do far worse than let the German conscience be our guide.