Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What's the Big Deal About Embryonic Stem Cells?

With the House of Representatives passing legislation authorizing Federal money for embryonic stem cell research the Senate and then the President will have some tough decisions to make. If the final bill gets to the President in its present form he will veto it. If there are enough votes to overrule the veto it will become law.

Why is this such a big deal? Two issues are at work.

First: A moral issue. Many Americans find the idea of creating human embryonic life and then destroying it for medical research to be ethically untenable. The idea of killing innocent life to possibly save another's life is simply not acceptable. President Bush argues that he does not believe that it is appropriate for the Federal government to take people's money to fund research programs that a large number of citizens believe to be immoral.

It is worth noting that Bush does not believe in enforcing any ban on private industry to either fund or participate in such research. At least not with existing embryonic cell lines.

Since the vast majority of Americans who have such moral objections are also political supporters of President Bush, his decision is not only based on a reasonable respect for moral diversity but on political reality as well. It would be, however, both cynical and unfair to claim that the political issues form Bush's primary motivation on this matter. It appears that he personally considers himself to be one of those who has moral and ethical reservations on such research and development.

His opponents, however, neither believe such research to be morally or ethically wrong nor support Bush politically. It is to their political advantage to defeat him on this issue. Morally, however, I believe that their argument comes up short.

While Bush does not believe that people should be forced to pay taxes in support of unnecessary programs that they believe to be morally objectionable, those on the other side believe that they should. Which side is more tolerant of diversity? Which side imposes its will on those who disagree and makes them pay for it with their own money?

I believe that President Bush's position represents a more defensible moral position than those who argue against him. I also believe that Bush's position represents a greater toleration and respect for diversity of opinion. Point #1 goes to Bush.

Second: Economics. If there is so much potential for amazing medical breakthroughs in human embryonic stem cell research then one would think that private investors would be standing in line to funnel capital funds to support such research. If it's such a sure thing then there ought to be real incentive for folks to try and make a lot of money out of it.

Why, then, is there such a need for the Federal government to subsidize this research? Can't researchers "sell their product" to the capital market on the basis of its own merits? Why aren't people like John Kerry or Teddy Kennedy shoving wheelbarrows of investment capital into the research if they think it is so promising and important?

My guess is because they, and many, many other investors, do not believe that it is going to ever make them any richer than they already are. In short, they want the research to be paid for out of the taxpayer's pockets. That way, if it turns out well, then they will take the credit for its success and the research companies will not have to repay any of their profits to those who provided the capital...ie. you and me.

If people are unwilling or unable to be motivated by either altruism or greed to support something, it makes no sense for the Federal government to step in and force them to support it. This should be left up to the private sector to sort out.

California passed an initiative to spend many millions of its tax dollars for this sort of research. I think that this decision was certainly foolish from an economic standpoint and, also, probably far inside the gray areas of being unconstitutional. But at least the people spoke their mind and their will....imposing the majority's desires onto the dissenting minority.

I think that Bush wins the economic argument on this matter also. If people smell success in research there will be no end of people willing to invest their money into it. The demand for the Federal government to foot the bill strikes me as evidence that the research smells like a loser and that the battle in the Congress is far more about political power than it is about medical research.

At least that's how I see it!