A Reagan Honor: Stem Cell Research

A posed action photo of Ronald Reagan playing the doomed Notre Dame halfback George Gipp in the 1940 film " Knute Rockne - All American. " Reagan died Saturday, June 5, 2004 after a long twilight struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 93.
This Against the Grain commentary is written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Instead of bumping Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill or concocting a way to put Ronald Reagan on Mt. Rushmore, let's pay tribute to the 40th president by taking the shackles of censorship and fear off of stem cell research.

This would be a profound, living legacy that would instantly tell millions of families and patients coping with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries that their government is no longer ignoring rational research into these conditions.

Even before Reagan's death, there was new pressure on President Bush to reverse his 2001 decision that federal funds could only be used on already existing stem cell lines. The source of that pressure was Nancy Reagan, who began speaking out in support of full funding for stem cell research recently.

It will be an uphill battle. This week, the current first lady appeared on the morning talk shows and stated her own opposition to full funding of stem cell research.

But politically the tide may have turned. Last month, 206 House members wrote Bush urging him to change course. And now 58 Senators, including 14 Republicans, have done the same.

From any wider view, it's folly to think the genetic genie can be put back into the bottle. The science will come from other countries and from American scientists using private funds. But results will come more slowly. And suffering that may be preventable will not be prevented.

The morality that worships that sanctity of life in the form of blastocysts, freshly fertilized eggs composed of a few cells, is willing to condemn other life – condemns it to suffering, to preventable death.

No one's personal liberty will be infringed by stem cell research. If stem cell science were to be unshackled in this country, anyone with moral or religious objections could simply refrain from donating sperms or eggs or even from ever benefiting from medical breakthroughs that may come.

But their argument is that the sanctity of life will still be violated and society shouldn't allow that. (But we can allow the death penalty and send soldiers to death in war.)

I don't think society should allow medical science to be censored because of the beliefs of a few. I don't think it's moral to ignore potential cures for great suffering.

We have the medical know-how to keep an Alzheimer's patient alive for years and years, but we don't have the science to give that patient a mind, dignity, and identity – a life. Is it moral to withhold a government's money from the search for a solution to that? I think not.

We now can keep a quadriplegic alive for decades. But is it moral to censor the science that could someday regenerate those severed connections?

To worry that stem cell research will inexorably lead to Frankenstein mad science is distinctly un-Reaganesque, indeed un-American. Remember Star Wars? Ronald Reagan had a faith in American ingenuity so immense he thought it could protect us from the Soviet arsenal. That may have been naïve, but the pessimism and Luddism of the opponents of stem cell research is paranoid. President Bush, supposedly the heir of Reagan's optimism, should look back in history to look forward with more hope.

Another lesson from President Reagan: change course. He did. The crusader for tax cutting actually raised taxes many times after the massive cuts of 1981. With luck, Bush is not so glued to his father's mantra that he keeps repeating: Stay the course.

Ronald Reagan was the master of timing. Let's hope President Bush has some of that, too.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer