Jerry Zucker: Road to Stem Cell Research “Relief”

Zucker Jerry Zucker wasn’t at all surprised when President Obama lifted restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. But there was one overriding emotion the writer-producer-director had on Monday: “Huge relief.”

For almost a decade, Zucker, along with his wife Janet, and producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, have been among the industry’s most relentless advocates for federal funding of stem cell research, which has been limited in scope by President Bush and the subject of polarized debate among the scientific and fundementalist religious communities.

“I am very pleased,” Zucker said, just hours after Obama signed the executive order. “I think it is fantastic. It has been a long eight years, but I think it is great that it has happened. And my greatest joy, really, is to see the president restore the commitment to science.”

Obama issued a directive to “guarantee scientific integrity” in policymaking.

Through their CuresNow Foundation, the team made ads, raised money, held forums, backed a documentary and helped spearhead a 2004 California proposition to fund stem cell research.

Their efforts, Zucker says, “raised awareness. That was helpful for a lot of reasons.”

Industry activists have been looking to the new adminstration for action on a host of issues. George Clooney, for example, recently met with Obama and vice president Joseph Biden about the crisis in Darfur, and Brad Pitt and producer Steve Bing met with the president to talk about rebuilding New Orleans.

But Obama’s move on stem cells — long expected, as he had promised as much during the campaign — is something different: actual action.

Zucker recalls a much different environment in 2002, when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) co-sponsored a bill that would have criminalized cloning, but it was so wide in scope that it also would have banned nuclear transplantation, or therapeutic cloning, used in research to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Zucker and his group created an ad campaign that featured “Harry and Louise” — the same couple that campaigned against President Clinton’s health care plan — with Louise telling viewers that “they can stop cloning without stopping lifesaving research.”

At the very least, Zucker believes, the spots helped prevent a cascade of senators from signing on to the Brownback-Landrieu bill without considering its full implications. They ran in the D.C. market and “showed people that there was another side, and that side were patients who were suffering.”

Along with a lobby that also included Mary Tyler Moore and Christopher Reeve, they testified before congressional committees and met with lawmakers. Zucker recalls one such face to face meeting with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who was being pressed from both sides. The Zuckers brought along their daughter Katie, who suffers from type one diabetes, and Cal Tech scientist David Anderson.

Eventually, Hatch came to support their side. “He has been wonderful on this issue,” Zucker said.

Soon after, Fisher and Wick, who also have a child with diabetes, began talking with their friend Nancy Reagan about the issue. (Wick’s father, Charles, was director of the United States Information Agency under President Reagan.) Eventually, the former first lady publicly urged President Bush to allow the federal funding of stem cell research, and became one of the most visible supporters. She issued a statement on Monday in which she said that she was “grateful” for Obama’s action.

“They enlisted her support, and she was a very fervent supporter of this science,” Zucker says. “That made a huge difference. When Nancy Reagan spoke out, it became a huge issue everywhere.”

John McCain also supported lifting the stem-cell restrictions, so the issue was somewhat of a moot point during the fall campaign. But Zucker wonders whether McCain, under pressure from the Republican right, “would have waited longer or would have waited for congressional action.”

Their work to lift the ban finished, the Zuckers now are promoting a science and entertainment exchange in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences in which researchers team up with filmmakers for ideas and expertise. And they are getting back to making movies, albeit politics is still at the forefront. They are in pre-production on “Fair Game,” the story of Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson.

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