Cutting through the fog on stem cell research

Politicians don't seem to have any right answers on stem cell research - but there is no shortage of wrong or stupid ones.

Dateline 27 May 2005

Stem cell research is one issue on which politicians seem incapable of behaving with any level of consistency or common sense.

First, allow me to dismiss the position of the Democrats, as that can be done in a single paragraph. Democrats cannot even mention this issue without resorting to monstrous lies. John Kerry spent last year condemning the “ban” on stem cell research. John Edwards went so far as to promise that people like Christopher Reeve could walk again. (Although made after Reeve’s death, I think we are to interpret it as a pledge to cure paralysis, not death). There is no ban on stem cell research. The federal government subsidizes the research and the current President, far from having introduced a ban, is the only one to have provided subsidy. End of Democrat contribution to this debate.

For most the Republicans, the debate is more nuanced. Some, notably Congressman Ron Paul (R. Texas), even act with integrity. For Dr Paul, the constitution does not empower the federal government to spend money on scientific research, so the question of whether or not this is a wise place to put the funds does not arise. No constitutional authorization means no tax dollars. Good point.

The President wants to subsidize embryonic stem cell research, but only research using existing cell lines. As part of his pro-life stance, the President does not want to see any more embryos sacrificed. An interesting compromise, but not very clearly thought through. If stem cell research is wrong, why is it okay to use existing lines of cells? I see the distinction between using cells from an embryo that is already dead and killing an embryo specifically to get its cells, but there are many new sources of stem cells from embryos that are being killed anyway. Why is it okay to use cells from an embryo killed when Clinton was President, but not okay if the embryo was killed last year?

Meanwhile, Rep Joe Pitts (R, PA) has proposed to ban embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it has not yet produced any treatments. As Chuck Muth, of Citizen Outreach put it: “Duh! That’s why they call it research”.

The truth is that the research does have potential; but no miracles, and certainly no cure for paralysis in a single presidential term. Researchers with that sort of potential would not even be asking for funding. Drug companies would be beating their doors down.

Dr Ron Paul is certainly right that the federal government should refrain from subsidizing research, as the feds are almost certain to put the money in wrong place. And it is objectionable to use tax dollars to fund research than many find offensive. But for the President to propose using his veto for the first time on this issue is astonishing. He has sanctioned hundreds of billions of dollars expenditure that the constitution does not authorize and which the taxpayers cannot afford.

Better for the government to butt out entirely. Abolish the subsidies, but also take an axe to the federal bureaucracy which slows the pace of private sector research. Most drugs come to the market years and sometimes decades late because of having to jump through pointless government hoops. Why can’t we just recognize that politicians and bureaucrats have absolutely no idea about science, and should neither subsidize nor regulate it?

Copyright © Quentin Langley 27 May 2005

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