Politics & Policy

Hard Cell Ahead

Nancy Reagan and life-and-death issues.

People who had no kind word for Nancy Reagan when she was First Lady held their tongues, as a matter of courtesy, when Mr. Reagan got sick. And now these gentry have made her a champion of their current cause, which is embryonic-stem-cell research.

The news stories feature her as a great new force pleading for a modification in hidebound policies set by President Bush. She brings with her that holy consecration to a cause which, she maintains, had it been explored a generation ago, might have spared her husband the pains he suffered in the 10 years of torpor and incapacitation that led up to the most keenly felt death of modern times.

The art of argumentation is: polarize. The cause you embrace is the cause of the wise and the virtuous. The negative is that of opportunists and of moral dumbmindedness. Sen. Arlen Specter (R, Penn.) is very good at this formulaic art, and is quoted most recently as saying, “If it’s a matter of throwing away embryos or saving lives with them, the answer is very clear-cut.” But if the right thing to do were very clear-cut, there wouldn’t be reason to delay in addressing the problem.

The quarrel is over President Bush’s position on embryonic stem cells. In 2001 he adopted a policy releasing a given number of them for scientific work. These were specially selected because they were “dead” in the sense that they could not be cloned for experiments of a kind that might edge in the direction of playing with tissues which could be said to be, conceivably, human beings.

Arguing against such limitation is the community that tends to side with science, except when science is making nuclear bombs. These folk argue that worry over embryonic stem cells is, in fact, a false worry inasmuch as such cells are never going to evolve into human beings, so that quarantining them is, really, an exercise in idolatry.

Meanwhile, nobody is pointing to any specific program aborted by the absence of additional lines of cells, and there is infinite work yet to be done exploring whether adult stem cells can in due course accomplish what the embryonic stem cells, the gold-standard research ingredients, promise. But a political war is shaping up. Two hundred members of Congress and 58 senators have urged the president to modify his quarantine, and Mrs. Reagan is adopted as the Mother Teresa of political reform, potentially the suffragette who will bring an end to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The philosophical question is of course the root question, even as it is the root question when considering abortion, or suicide. But the political question surely comes first. There is no constitutional provision that gives to the chief executive exclusive authority over the disposition of embryonic stem cells. Most of these, to be sure, are the result of scientific and medical activity that is the result of government endowment. But this should not give to the executive arm exclusively authority to rule on the question. If the majority in Congress feels that to deny stem cell reserves to researchers is wrong and shortsighted, let it vote to change the policy.

But as the question gallops forward, asking for primary political stage time, we should give thought to all the questions touched upon by the ordeal of Ronald Reagan. Begin by acknowledging that the ordeal was not by any means his alone, but that also of his wife, and of the scientific community that automatically takes on the job of prolonging human life. If, two weeks ago, the patient in Bel Air had suffered a mere reversal, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would have labored intensively to keep him alive.

The high cost of Mr. Reagan’s illness is measured not exclusively by what it did to Mr. Reagan. That was the primary cost. But secondary costs included ruining Nancy Reagan’s life. And, yes, absorbing a thousand hours of medical time and effort in the asymptotic enterprise of keeping someone alive. It can’t be done forever, so that the question arises not only how the illness might have been avoided, but also how reasonably to react after the illness had set in.

That question asks, once again, for consideration at two levels. Morally, one asks, do we need fresher guidelines for dealing with the incurably sick? And politically we ask: Is there a reasonable limit to the claims of the incurably ill?

Mr. Bush would be wise to reconsider what has been thought to be the president’s exclusive authority over such questions of life and death and hubris.


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