Ronald Reagan, even in his heyday and at the peak of his personal influence, was hardly the fellow you'd turn to for a deep theological or ethical explication of a difficult issue. On the issue of abortion, where Mr. Reagan generally got decent marks from pro-lifers, his support of their position often left them hoping he wouldn't embarrass them with some half-baked explanation of the issue.
All of which prompts me to reflect in wonder at the superiority of Mr. Reagan's political approach to such matters-and to suggest now that it wasn't just his soft winsomeness that was so appealing, but maybe the restraint of his logic as well. This is a time for us pro-lifers to listen to the Gipper.
Specifically, Mr. Reagan during his presidency generally refused to get drawn into the ambiguities of the debate over when human life begins. Again and again, he shifted the argument to ask, with that famous half-cocking of his head: "If there's doubt about it, and if there is mystery, then shouldn't we be extraordinarily careful?"
For surely-if not for us pro-lifers, at least for our very secular population at large-doubt and mystery surround the issue of when life begins. Even the stating of the question is problematic, for the issue isn't really when life begins. Both the egg and the sperm are very much alive even before they have been united. The tough question for most people has more to do with when a unique human being gets his or her start. I would argue that even most pro-lifers have not settled that issue-and probably shouldn't have settled it if they have.
It is easy to argue technically that human life begins at conception; the scientific evidence is all but overwhelming. It is much harder to hold that every union of a human egg and a human sperm, no matter how early after conception that combination may have come to the end of its life, is a human being that will live with his or her own identity before God through all eternity. It is, for example, an established biological fact that a high proportion of such "conceptions" are spontaneously ended in the natural course of events when those combined cells fail to find a settling place in the womb.
God's remarkable plan has provided a means for washing away that early effort toward human life. Yet very few people indeed take special note of such events, which happen every day. I know hundreds of committed pro-lifers, but I know of none who schedule memorial services for very early miscarriages. I know of no church body that encourages such memorials.
So do I hold such people to be inconsistent at best, or hypocritical at worst, for failing to act on what they say they believe? Not at all. I see them instead as living out the Ronald Reagan maxim: "If there's mystery involved, let's live on the safe side."
In the debate over embryonic stem-cell research, some well-meaning folks argue strenuously that because such efforts necessarily involve the wanton destruction of existing human beings, the national policy should preclude such research. That, however, is to structure a laudable conclusion on an unprovable premise-and whenever you do that in a public policy debate, you run the risk of losing both ends of the argument.
It's far better simply to do what Mr. Reagan did so effectively. Let's argue passionately (if a little naively) that this whole process is so wrapped in sacred mystery that only brash and reckless people would dare to go there. In terms of national priorities, let's push hard first to unravel the mysteries surrounding adult stem cells. Once we get some of those riddles taken care of, maybe the mysteries of research with embryos will take care of themselves.
In other words: Stay on the safe side.
To adopt such a posture is not at all to minimize our own convictions. It is, however, to distinguish more accurately that which we know from God with explicit certainty from that which we know only with tentative inference. "The secret things," Moses reminds us in Deuteronomy 29:29, "belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law."
A proper understanding of that distinction in the pursuit of public policy doesn't weaken our position. It strengthens it immeasurably.