By William P. Clark
Editor's note. The following first appeared in the New York Times and is reprinted with the author's permission. William P. Clark was national security adviser and secretary of the interior under President Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan had not passed from this life for 48 hours before proponents of human embryonic stem cell research began to suggest that such ethically questionable scientific work should be promoted under his name. But this cannot honestly be done without ignoring President Reagan's own words and actions. Ronald Reagan's record reveals that no issue was of greater importance to him than the dignity and sanctity of all human life. "My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land,"
he said in 1983. "And there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning." One of the things he regretted most at the completion of his presidency in 1989, he told me, was that politics and circumstances had prevented him from making more progress in restoring protection for unborn human life.
Still, he did what he could. To criticize the Roe v. Wade decision on its 10th anniversary in 1983, he published his famous essay "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation" in The Human Life Review. "We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life - - the unborn - - without diminishing the value of all human life," he wrote. He went on to emphasize "the truth of human dignity under God" and "respect for the sacred value of human life.'' Because modern science has revealed the wonder of human development, and modern medicine treats "the developing human as a patient,'' he declared, "the real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?"
In that essay, he expressly encouraged continued support for the "sanctity of life ethic" and rejection of the "quality of life ethic." Writing about the value of all human life, he quoted the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge's statement that "however low it flickers or fiercely burns, it is still a divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives ever so humane and enlightened." And in the Roe v. Wade decision, he insisted, the Supreme Court "did not explicitly reject the traditional American idea of intrinsic worth and value in all human life; it simply dodged the issue.''
Likewise, in his famous "Evil Empire" speech of March 1983 - - which most recall as solely an indictment of the Soviet Union - - Ronald Reagan spoke strongly against the denigration of innocent human life. "Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year," he said. "Unless and until it can be proven that the unborn child is not a living entity, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected."
His actions were as clear as his words. He supported the Human Life Amendment, which would have inscribed in the Constitution "the paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health or condition of dependency." And he favored bills in Congress that would have given every human being - - at all stages of development - - protection as a person under the 14th Amendment.
Aside from the moral principle, President Reagan would also have questioned picking the people's pocket to support commercial research. He understood the significance of putting the imprimatur of the nation, through public financing, behind questionable research.
He consistently opposed federal support for the destruction of innocent human life. After the charter expired for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's ethical advisory board - - which in the 1970s supported destructive research on human embryos - - he began a de facto ban on federal financing of embryo research that he held to throughout his presidency.
As for today's debate, as a defender of free people and free markets, he would have asked the marketplace question: if human embryonic research is so clearly promising as the researchers assert, why aren't private investors putting money into it, as they are in adult stem cell research?
Mr. Reagan's suffering under Alzheimer's disease was tragic, and we should do everything we can that is ethically proper to help others afflicted with it. But I have no doubt that he would have urged our nation to look to adult stem cell research - - which has yielded many clinical successes - - and away from the destruction of developing human lives, which has yielded none. Those who would trade on Ronald Reagan's legacy should first consider his own words.