Politics & Policy

A Relative Value?

All human life should be defended.

When he takes the podium at the Republican National Convention tonight, Michael Reagan will give voice to a little-known constituency in the stem-cell debates: Relatives of Alzheimer’s sufferers who do not want human embryos destroyed in the search for a cure.

Like Nancy Reagan and Ron Reagan Jr., Michael Reagan knows the horrors of Alzheimer’s firsthand. He watched as its plaques and tangles destroyed the brain of his adoptive father, the late President Reagan. But unlike his stepmother and stepbrother, Michael Reagan does not believe that restrictions on taxpayer funding of embryonic-stem-cell research are the only obstacle to instant cures for everything from diabetes to Parkinson’s. And like his father, he believes that human life should be protected from the moment of conception.

Though President Reagan was crystal clear about his opposition to the destruction of human life in its earliest stages, advocates of embryonic-stem-cell research have not hesitated to invoke his name–and his disease–to promote their cause. They claim that this research could soon cure Alzheimer’s, even though scientists widely agree that the disorder is too complex and affects too many parts of the brain to be ameliorated by injections of stem cells. And they savagely criticize anyone who challenges what has become the conventional wisdom about Alzheimer’s families: that those who have seen this devastating disease up close are, by definition, staunch supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research.

Consider the ruthless ridicule endured by Laura Bush, whose father died of Alzheimer’s in 1997. When she spoke out against the unrestricted destruction of human embryos for such research this summer, she was lampooned by columnists and cartoonists as a “Republican attack dog” and a “Stepford Wife” who could not think for herself. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post marveled that the First Lady thought her father’s experience with Alzheimer’s gave her “the credentials to tangle with Ron Reagan”–a stem-cell advocate whose most prominent credential is his father’s experience with Alzheimer’s.

Like Laura Bush and Michael Reagan, I too am the child of a man whose brain has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s. And like them, I do not wish to see human life destroyed in the search for a cure. My father would not have wanted that either. He always believed that life was precious, and he spent his life defending the rights of the mentally handicapped–another group endangered by the idea that only the lives of the strong and self-sufficient have value.

The same twisted logic that justifies the destruction of human embryos for scientific research ultimately discounts the lives of people like my father. Peter Singer, a Princeton philosopher famous for taking our culture’s utilitarian ethos to its extreme, has said that those who suffer from severe dementia, like the unborn, are not really persons. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer argues that such demented “non-persons” lack self-consciousness, so “it is difficult to see the point of keeping such human beings alive if their life is, on the whole, miserable.” Not surprisingly, Singer has no moral qualms about killing human embryos, either.

The families of those who have Alzheimer’s–or any other illness that purportedly could be cured by embryonic-stem-cell research–should think twice before jumping onto this bandwagon. We can see in Singer’s ideas how the perverse logic behind this research may someday hurt the very people we are trying to save. And we can see in our suffering relatives how much life and love survive the most debilitating diseases. Perhaps our experience makes us uniquely suited to defend the sanctity of human life in all stages, even its last–and its very first.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002).


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