By Francis J. Beckwith
In 1984 President Reagan published a small book, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation that included postscripts by his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, and the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge. It was the first book published by a sitting president. Reagan’s contribution to the volume had been published in the spring of 1983 in the Human Life Review, but he saw fit to republish it so that his argument could reach a wider audience.
On June 5, 2004, President Reagan died of pneumonia after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. His death brought an avalanche of media coverage, including commentary by the late president’s friends and foes, and apparently neutral observers in the press. Despite all of that, his position on abortion was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. I did, however, hear several mentions of Nancy Reagan’s support of embryonic-stem-cell research — an endorsement based on that research’s purported promise of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.
In fact, Ron Reagan, the son of Mrs. Reagan and her late husband, will be offering a prime-time address at the Democratic Convention tonight in which he will defend such research.
We can certainly understand why Mrs. Reagan takes the position she does. For a decade she suffered as she saw her beloved husband’s mental facilities deteriorate, until he could no longer recognize her, his children, or their closest and dearest friends. If the president had died of a heart attack or even cancer, it would have been painful for his family, but it wouldn’t have approached the anguish of witnessing the protracted escaping of talent, memory, and wit from a man who had those things in abundance. No one can blame Mrs. Reagan for employing her public reputation and reservoir of good will to promote the scientific research she believes will spare other families from the misfortune that she and hers have suffered.
But as I listened to the commentators extolling Mrs. Reagan’s cause, I asked myself the question: What would Ronald Reagan do? So I pulled out my copy of Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, to apply the implications of President Reagan’s argument to the sort of research his widow now advocates.
Ronald Reagan’s work on abortion is animated by his understanding of human equality. He found it in the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, and in reality in President Lincoln’s project of “a new birth of freedom.” For President Reagan, what mattered in the abortion debate — what is doing the moral work, so to speak — is whether the unborn is a member of the greater human family, not whether it exhibits the characteristics we find in that family’s healthy adult members. “[W]e live in a time,” he wrote, “when some do not value all human life. They want to pick and choose what individuals have value. Some have said that only those individuals with ‘consciousness of self’ are human beings…. 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 status as a ‘human being.’”
Reagan saw in this debate what Lincoln saw in the issue of slavery: Are the slaves truly human beings in possession of the same nature as their owners? If so, then they are not meant to be property, but are bearers of rights, entitled to the same protections under the law as all beings who possess that nature. For Reagan, in turn, the question was: Does the unborn fetus possess the same nature she will possess as she grows and develops into an infant, a child, an adolescent, a young adult, a middle-ager, a senior citizen?
President Reagan saw the deep connection between our human nature and the rights that spring from it, which a just government is obligated recognize. The unborn — from zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus — is the same being, the same substance, that develops into an adult. The actualization of a human being’s potentials — that is, her “human” appearance and the exercise of her rational and moral powers as an adult — is merely the public presentation of functions latent in every human substance, from the moment it is brought into being. A human may lose and regain those functions throughout her life, but the substance remains unchanged.
As Reagan understood, if one’s value is conditioned on certain accidental properties, then the human equality affirmed by the Declaration and advanced by Lincoln — the philosophical foundation of our constitutional regime — is a fiction. In that case there is no principled basis for rejecting the notion that human rights ought to be distributed to individuals on the basis of native intellectual abilities or other value-giving properties, such as rationality or self-awareness. One can only reject this notion by affirming that human beings are intrinsically valuable because they possess a particular nature from the moment they come into existence. That is to say, what a human being is, and not what he does, makes her a subject of rights. But this would mean that, like slavery, the nation ought to discard the right to abortion, for it is as inconsistent with our fundamental principles as was slavery.
Stem cells are found in all animals, including human beings. In adults, stem cells serve the function of repairing damaged tissue. In the early embryo — before its cells differentiate into the cells of particular organs — stem cells are are called totipotent cells, because they “retain the special ability to develop into nearly any cell type,” according to a 1999 report of Bill Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC). The embryo’s germ cells — cells that “originate from the primordial reproductive cells of the developing fetus” — have similar properties. Whatever the potential of human stem-cell research, the real issue that animates opponents and raises deep ethical questions is how these cells are obtained and from what entity they are derived.
The NBAC report focused on four potential sources of human stem cells-all raising severe ethical issues: from “human fetal tissue following elective abortion,” from human embryos created by IVF that are either no longer needed by couples seeking infertility treatment or have been donated for the sole purpose of providing research material, and from “potentially, human (or hybrid) embryos generated asexually by somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning techniques.” With the exception of the first source — which is controversial for other reasons — an embryo’s stem cells can only be extracted at the cost of killing that embryo.
Given President Reagan’s writings and beliefs, it is clear to me that he would oppose research with stem cells derived from human embryos, no matter what the potential benefits of such research might be. He would see the moral incoherence of using an embryo to acquire its stem cells, thus ending one human being’s life so that another can reacquire the capacities the younger human being was not allowed to develop.
Ironically, the President’s son, Ron, in a June 23 interview on Larry King Live, inadvertently offered an insight into the depth and clarity of his father’s convictions that would lead one to think that Ron has not taken seriously his father’s published work on the nature of the unborn: “My father used to just say what he meant. If he felt something, felt it strongly, he’d go out and talk about it. I never got the feeling that there were different rules for him and the rest of us.”
Nevertheless, there is a way that Mrs. Reagan can honor both her late husband’s memory as well as his deeply held convictions about the nature of the unborn. She can shift her focus away from embryonic-stem-cell research and support the promotion of research on adult stem cells. It seems to have much promise, as Wesley J. Smith has pointed out on NRO.
During the week following Reagan’s death, several commentators asked how President Bush would handle the delicate situation of publicly assessing Mrs. Reagan’s policy recommendations. But they were making the wrong inquiry. The important question is not, “What will President Bush do?” but “What would President Reagan do?,” since it is on behalf of his memory that Mrs. Reagan is making her case. It is that question that must be respectfully asked of Mrs. Reagan and those who agree with her.
President Reagan, in his usual winsome fashion, knew how to convey the moral power of this reasoning: “Abortion concerns not just the unborn, it concerns every one of us. The English poet, John Donne, wrote: ‘… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’” CBHD
Francis J. Beckwith, PhD is Fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Associate Director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and Associate Professor of Church-State studies at Baylor University.