- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Life or death, president or common man, principle or expediency, they’re all grist for the great mill that never ceases grinding in Washington and on affiliated talk shows.

Some people have a life and a death, others have only politics. And it’s not a pretty sight when they seize on a great man’s death to further their own agenda. As if it were one more prop, one more photo-op, one more guest spot. Consider:

Ronald Reagan’s body was still barely warm when the usual anti-life brigade materialized, like circling vultures around fresh carrion, to use his passing as an opportunity to push its own pet project. For it was certainly never his.

This time their object is to further stem cell research — but not just any kind of stem cell research. It has to be the kind that condones — no, approves and advocates — experimentation on human life at its earliest stages.

Well, sure. It would have been impossible for them to forgo such a chance; it would have been like expecting restraint from a political junkie, or a pause in fund-raising just when the emotional atmosphere for a fashionable cause was revved up.

It would have been like expecting a televangelist to skip the mandatory appeal for funds at the end of his appeal for souls. In short, it would have been just too much to expect of a society that long ago confused opportunity with opportunism.

Of course, Ronald Reagan’s passing would become the occasion for still another push to legalize experimentation on the human embryo/blastocyst to extract its stem cells — the kind of cells some scientists and actors and abortionists have been touting for years as the secret to curing everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s to … You Name It.

Never mind that actual experiments with embryonic stem cells have produced either monstrous results or little or nothing. Work with mature stem cells has proven most promising, and those cells present no ethical problem because they can usually be taken from adults with no ill effects.

Why not honor Ronald Reagan’s memory by doing something great in his name to advance the more reliable forms of stem cell research? Why not, for example, establish a well-regulated supply of stem cells from umbilical cord blood? Those cells have proven the most useful. And there are many other alternatives to using embryonic stem cells for research. Why not explore their use?

Because that would be free of any ideological agenda; it would not present man’s adventuresome spirit with new ethical boundaries to cross. It would not be, as the conventional avant-garde likes to say, transgressive. It would lack the requisite socio-politico-artistic razzmatazz. And it wouldn’t be politically controversial at all. Where’s the fun in that?

It has been man’s nature since before the expulsion from Eden to lust after only forbidden fruit, and to find it more tempting than all the others in the Garden. Research on human embryos. What could be more exciting? That explains why folks who never shared Ronald Reagan’s own reverence for life have finally found a use for him in death.

Yes, one can honestly and respectfully debate such issues, and should. A presidential commission has devoted itself to these ethical questions, and it has come up with some thoughtful answers. The current president has tried to chart a course between encouraging scientific research with stem cells and at the same time respecting human life. Nancy Reagan herself has earned the respect, sympathy and admiration of all during the years of her husband’s painful decline, and she has long advocated research using embryonic stem cells. Whether she is moved by reason or desperation or both, one can fully understand why she would.

But for decency’s sake, those pushing this latest foray across the old bounds of medicine, law, ethics and morality might at least have waited till the man’s funeral was concluded before exploiting his death.

Granted, it’s almost impossible to avoid making political points when doing honor to the life and death of a politician, especially one who threw himself into the vortex of this country’s robust debates over values and policies for many years — from the time he headed Hollywood For Truman back in 1948 till he became an icon of the other party.

But some boundaries still need to be respected, not just in science and ethics, but when it comes to using a dead president’s name and aura to further one’s own goals. There ought to be some limits to tastelessness even in America. Oh, where is a Jane Austen when we need her sharp eye most? Not for the first time, the thought occurs that the novel of manners died in America sometime during the last decades of the 20th century, mainly because manners did.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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