Posted on June 16, 2004
The Gipper Has Spoken
Don't kill embryos on his account
With the support of former first lady Nancy Reagan, 58 senators are trying to persuade President Bush to ease restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Their petition was written before Ronald Reagan's death, but the Senators publicized it afterward, in hopes that the increased attention paid to the former president's disease would aid their cause. "I believe that it's going to be pretty rough for anybody not to have empathy for her [Nancy's] feelings on this issue," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R, Utah).
That's undeniably true. There's probably not a more sympathetic figure in America right now than Nancy Reagan, who has just lived a decade of days longer than most of us can imagine. Furthermore, she had to realize that stem cell research would not yield results in time to do anything for her husband, so her activism on this issue cannot be considered selfish. She's only trying to spare others the agony she's already lived through. But if this campaign to fund destructive embryonic research is being waged in the name of her husband, shouldn't it require his approval, or at least a lack of evidence that he would oppose it?
Naturally, Mrs. Reagan is convinced she is doing right by her husband, but the two of them didn't always see eye-to-eye politically, especially where right-to-life issues were concerned. Sen. Hatch and most of his colleagues have got to realize this.
Perhaps they are in agreement with former Reagan administration Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver. According to a September 29th New York Times story, Deaver was challenged by an unnamed Republican congressman on whether or not his old boss would approve of embryonic stem cell research. He dismissively replied that, "Ronald Reagan didn't have to take care of Ronald Reagan for the last ten years."
That's not an acceptable answer. If Ronald Reagan's memory is going to be used to promote a cause, the question of whether he would himself have supported that cause is all-important. And the evidence -- to the detriment of Mrs. Reagan, Sen. Hatch and Mr. Deaver -- says loudly and clearly that he would not.
In 1983, President Reagan wrote an essay for the Human Life Review entitled, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. This brief but thorough enunciation of his pro-life philosophy was published in book form a year later, padded out to 95 pages with lengthy afterwords by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and British essayist Malcolm Muggeridge. Although the book does not directly deal with the existence of embryos outside their mothers' bodies, it is not difficult to deduce from it what Reagan's opinion of destructive embryonic research would be.
Reagan wrote that, "We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life -- the unborn -- without diminishing the value of all human life." That seems straightforward enough, but maybe not everybody's convinced. Maybe there are those who think an embryo needs to have been implanted to qualify for the status of "unborn." Some might even doubt whether Reagan himself had decisively concluded that a week-old embryo in a petri dish should be described as a human life.
In the case of abortion, Reagan wrote, "I have also said that anyone who doesn't feel sure whether we are talking about a second human life should clearly give life the benefit of the doubt. If you don't know whether a body is alive or dead, you would never bury it."
To conclude from this that he would approve of destroying so-called "spare" embryos created through in-vitro fertilization, one would have to determine not simply that he had doubts as to whether these embryos were human beings, but that he was positive that they were not. Anyone who thinks this sounds plausible ought to consider his 1988 declaration of Sanctity of Human Life Day, which he signed to protest Roe v. Wade, a week before the fifteenth anniversary of that fatal ruling.
"I ... do hereby proclaim and declare the unalienable personhood of every American from the moment of conception until natural death," he wrote. People might differ as to whether "conception" refers to fertilization, or to the implantation of the embryo in the womb. Even if we assume, however, that he meant the latter, he would still be referring to an embryo the same age as the ones being destroyed for research.
There's no way he would believe that one days-old embryo is a person, but that another identical one is not, based on their respective environments. Oh, sure, that's the position Sen. Hatch takes ("Life begins in a mother's womb, not in a refrigerator."), but everyone knows that Ronald Reagan did not embody that quality euphemistically known in politics as "nuance."
Underscoring his certainty, Reagan wrote in his essay, "The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?" [italics in original]. That doesn't sound like he's leaving open the possibility that quasi-human microscopic missing links might be made available for experimentation. His warning continues a few pages later: "Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her the status as a 'human being'." So much for any hopes of persuading him with the "just cells" argument.
Some say that killing human embryos while trying to cure diseases is the true "pro-life" position, because it could potentially save many more lives than it would destroy. President Reagan would not agree. "I am convinced that Americans do not want to play God with the value of human life," he wrote. "It is not for us to decide who is worthy to live and who is not." Those are not the words of a man who would want his own death to serve as a catalyst for the taxpayer-funded slaughter of human embryos.
To the contrary, he continued to write that, "The sanctity of human life is a principle that Congress should proclaim at every opportunity." If those 58 senators petitioning President Bush disagree, then the least they can do to pay respect to the late President Reagan is to stop invoking his name while promoting a policy in diametric opposition to his own wishes.
In concluding Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, President Reagan promised, "My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning."
There is no plausible way anybody can read Reagan's words and think there's any chance he would support embryonic stem cell research. To begin funding the killing of human embryos as a way of honoring Ronald Reagan makes about as much sense as constructing a monument to Abraham Lincoln using slave labor.
Presumably, Mr. Lincoln's family, his former staff, and his congressional allies would find his opinion on the matter to be relevant.
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