Ron Reagan’s speech Tuesday night at the Democratic convention was breathtakingly irresponsible. For example, despite the fact that no one knows whether embryonic stem cells will ever be effective in curing Parkinson’s disease or any other grave affliction, Ron Reagan virtually promised Parkinson’s sufferers that embryonic stem cells will provide a cure for them in ten years or so. “Sound like magic?,” he said. Welcome to the future of medicine.” But Ron Reagan has no idea–no one does–whether this is the future of medicine. He is engaged in a campaign of outrageous hype to persuade suffering people that a mere change of administrations in Washington will lead to cures for “a wide range of debilitating illnesses: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lymphoma, spinal cord injuries, and much more.” Sound like snake oil? Welcome to the present of politics.
This was not, however, the low point of Ron Reagan’s speech. What was most shameful about it was his dishonesty in eliding the distinction between human embryonic stem cells and the human embryos that are deliberately killed in the process of stem-cell harvesting. After promising to “do justice to the science,” Ron Reagan described the process of obtaining embryonic stem cells in a way that left out the fact that the cloning process he described creates a human embryo which is killed in order to harvest its stem cells. Ordinary listeners who are unfamiliar with cloning technology–and, by the way, Ron Reagan was careful not to use the word “cloning,” though that is exactly what he was describing–would be left with the impression that the process generated embryonic stem cells without generating an embryo! Indeed, by ambiguously referring to “these cells,” in order to avoid revealing the fact that the cloning process generates a living human embryo which is then deliberately killed, Ron Reagan no doubt left some people with the impression that opponents of embryonic-stem-cell research consider embryonic stem cells, rather than the human embryos from which they are harvested, to be human beings. But this is the very reverse of the truth. No one believes that stem cells–embryonic or otherwise–are human beings. Those of us who oppose embryonic-stem-cell harvesting object to the practice because it necessarily involves the killing of human embryos. And human embryos are nothing other than human beings in the embryonic stage of their natural development. Ron Reagan refuses to face up to this fact. He suggests that it is a matter of “theological belief,” when the truth is that it is a plain matter of scientific fact that can be verified by consulting any textbook in human embryology.
If Ron Reagan were honest, he would have revealed that “human embryo” does not refer to something distinct or different in kind from a human being–like a stone, a potato, or an alligator; it refers to a human being at a certain very early stage of development–the embryonic stage. Just as each of us was once an adolescent, and before that a child, and before that an infant, and before that a fetus, each of us was once an embryo. (By contrast, none of us was ever a somatic cell, or an ovum, or sperm cell.) The human “adolescent,” “infant,” “fetus,” and “embryo” are not different kinds of entities (or, as philosophers say, “different substances”); these terms refer to stages in the natural development of a human beings. Embryos, fetuses, infants, adolescents, and adults differ not in kind (or substance), but in maturity or stage of development. By a process of internal self-direction and self-integration, every adult human being developed from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with his or her unity, determinateness, and identity fully intact. Even in the embryonic stage, each of us was already (and not merely “potentially”) a whole, living member of the species Homo sapiens, possessing a human genetic constitution and the epigenetic primordial for internally directed development towards full human maturity. In other words, each of us came into being as a human being; none of us became a human being only at some point after coming into being. In the embryonic stage of our lives, we were not “potential human beings,” for we were human beings already. We were potential adults. Our potential was to mature into adulthood.
Had Ron Reagan really wanted to “do justice to the science,” he would not have suppressed these facts. He would have faced up to them. But doing justice to the science of embryology would not have helped the candidate or party to which Ron Reagan chose to offer himself.
–Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.