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Looking Ahead, Looking Back


It’s hardly a fair match-up, the son of a much-loved former president speaking before the party that reviled his father and a national television audience and a guy writing into a web site but Ron Reagan did a very nice job of drawing the lines that needed to be drawn on the ethical disputes over embryonic stem cell research.
Although he sounded like a TV-voice over during much of his speech, Reagan didn’t engage in any soft-sell anecdotes about his father’s illness. What he did was present the case that human cells developed and destroyed in labs are not life as we know it and that we can — and should — make an ethical distinction. And he did it without emotion or drama. Ron Reagan’s not his father. But, you know, perhaps the nicest thing is that he’s not trying to be, either. And he’s not alone on this: his sister Patty will be talking with Larry King about the need for stem cell research next month.

Backers of California’s stem cell ballot initiative, Proposition 71, couldn’t be happier. “It’s a pretty broad endorsement,” Prop 71 backer Robert Klein said in a phone call from Boston calling Reagan’s plea to vote in November favor of stem cell research “more than a shot in the arm.”
Even without the Reagans, stem cell research was expected to do well in November, according to Klein. With what pollsters euphemistically call “education” (what you’d call TV spots and brochures) the measure passes by almost two-thirds; without a campaign, support falls to just over 50 percent. And almost everyone has some family experience with the range of diseases that might be better addressed, even cured, by research using stem cells.
It’s never a good idea to take the claims that ballot initiative proponents put forth. The fine print had a tendency to go on and on and on and you know what they say about the devil and the details. But I’ve been plowing my way through Carey McWilliam’s “The Great Exception,” reading most recently about the role that James Lick played in the early development of what’s become (since McWilliams wrote in 1948) Silicon Valley.
Under the heading “Certain California Eccentrics,” McWilliams describes Lick’s donate of $700,000 to create the Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, which you can, on clear days in the fall, pick out easily in the hills above San Jose. It’s still in use and, if you want to see the impact that Lick’s gift – made at the end of the 19th Century has had – drive down U.S. 280. If you glance up at the right time, you’ll get a nice view of observatory dome sitting just above NASA Ames Space Research Center. No, there’s no clear line. But, as McWilliams points out, creating a center of scientific research can – and does – lead in all sorts of unexpected directions.

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