When Ronald Reagan died this past
Saturday, he bade farewell to this world, but left behind a legacy
that will continue to shape the political scene far into the
future. His election in 1980 was a pivotal moment in history; his
policies and decisions revitalized the Republican Party, helped
restart the American economy and fundamentally changed the dynamic
of our relationship with the Soviet Union. He provided inspiration
not only to Americans in the wake of the Challenger disaster, but
also to citizens of a divided Germany when he challenged Mikhail
Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. A hero to conservatives, an
icon of evil for liberals, Reagan will undoubtedly be remembered as
one of the most influential presidents of the past century.
Known as the “Great Communicator,” Reagan built his
reputation in front of a camera; he captured the attention of the
world with his remarkable poise and self-deprecating wit. After
decades of connecting to audiences, voters and foreign leaders,
Reagan passed away in a humbling and devastating manner, unable to
speak or even recognize his wife of 52 years. When, in 1994, Reagan
informed America that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s
disease, he wrote, “I now begin the journey that will lead me
into the sunset of my life.” That sunset has come and gone,
but like Reagan, it promises to leave a lasting legacy.
This is because, for millions, the manner of the
President’s death is not an abstraction: Alzheimer’s is
one of the most prevalent degenerative neurological conditions.
Yet, no known cure exists, and every year, thousands more are
forced to face a disease that destroys the very ability of
individuals to be themselves. The most promising treatments —
those using embryonic stem cells — rest undiscovered, as
religious conservatives and their allies in the Bush administration
inhibit the ability of scientists to carry out research.
When Bush established a stem cell research policy, he decreed
that federal funding would be withdrawn from any labs that use
cells from “cell lines” — or cultures —
which were created after the policy was established. In defending
his policies, he has argued that over 60 lines exist; however, many
scientists and legislators attest that merely 15 are viable.
Consequently, researchers are unable to make significant progress;
effective cures still lie beyond the realm of medical science.
On May 8, Nancy Reagan emotionally announced that,
“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a
distant place where I can no longer reach him,” but expressed
hope that others would be spared the pain she was. A crucial aspect
of her vision was stem cell research; she teamed with over 200
congresspeople in asking Bush to rescind his restrictions. Despite
being pro-life, Mrs. Reagan clearly articulated a position in favor
of stem cell research.
Reagan’s endorsement of stem cell research is paradoxical,
on the surface, because the debate has been framed in the context
of the abortion controversy. However, stem cell research is a
completely separate issue, despite the spin that many have given
it. While the right to terminate a pregnancy revolves around the
right of a mother to end the life of an unborn child, embryos used
for stem cell lines are condemned to death regardless of how they
are used. Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of unused
embryos are stored in fertility clinics’ freezers, waiting
for the day that they are unceremoniously destroyed. Many stem cell
researchers argue is that these embryos — already sentenced
to death — can, and should, be used to create cell lines.
Thus, while those opposed to further investigation claim to be
protecting the rights of the unborn, they are merely impeding
scientific progress and condemning those suffering from
degenerative diseases to inevitable, undignified deaths.
When Reagan chose to come forward with his diagnosis, he did so
with a sense of civil responsibility, commenting that he and his
wife had found that “through our open disclosures we were
able to raise public awareness.” As we mourn the loss of our
Great Communicator, we must heed his call to attention. His
suffering and death must not be merely remembered as tragic; they
must become catalysts for change. When cast in the limelight of
history, Ronald Reagan should be viewed not only for what he
managed in office, but also what he facilitated in death, to
promote the welfare of this nation.