Social and religious conservatives have robbed American scientists of their chance to play a leading role in the promising field of stem cell research, actor and writer Christopher Reeve said during a visit to the medical school in April. “We’re giving away our pre-eminence in science and medicine,” he said. “We’re going to lose incredibly valuable time.

“When matters of public policy are being decided, no religion should have a seat at the table—that is what is provided for in the Constitution,” Reeve said. Yet religious conservatives, including the Pope, he said, “have an undue influence in the debate.”

Because of their plasticity—their ability to differentiate into any cell in the human body—stem cells “have unlimited potential to cure disease,” Reeve told the crowd that filled the auditorium of the Anylan Center for Medical Research and Education. Reeve also hopes that stem cell research will lead to a cure for paralysis such as his, the result of a 1995 riding accident.

In a talk sponsored by the Yale Stem Cell Interest Group, Reeve criticized President Bush’s order of August 9, 2001, restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to only 64 extant cell lines. (Last May, National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., acknowledged that only 11 of those lines were eligible for federal research funds.) Reeve suggested that the decision made no ethical sense in light of Bush’s objection to using embryos for research. “Those lines were derived from leftover embryos from infertility clinics. Did he suddenly develop a new morality effective August 10th?”

Reeve noted that, although typically about a third of embryos are discarded as medical waste, even vocal opponents of using embryos for research have never suggested banning in vitro fertilization. “They know very well that you can’t go to a couple and say, ‘You can’t have a child this way.’”

President Bush has followed his ruling on stem cells with a call for a ban on all forms of human cloning, whether therapeutic or reproductive. Reeve made a distinction between reproductive cloning of human beings (which “sounds like Frankenstein’s work,” and which he opposes) and cloning stem cells from embryos and adult tissues for research. Reeve rejected the implication “that science has no ethics and that it will run rampant if religion and conservative ideologies aren’t brought into the picture.”

He called stem cell research “the future of science.” “There’s going to be a seismic shift,” Reeve told an audience composed largely of medical and doctoral students, “and you will ride the wave into an era when stem cells will be able to aid millions of people.” He urged the audience to “make it happen here,” but advised young scientists to leave the United States and pursue the research elsewhere, if necessary. “It’s a big world. … If you really want to heal people, you go where the work is being done.

“Even though I sit here in a wheelchair, frustrated by today’s public policy, I’m very hopeful about tomorrow and what will be achieved,” Reeve said. “And so, go do it.”