Conservatives Who Trust the Government on Stem Cell Research

Published September 1, 2001

A number of prominent pro-life conservatives, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Florida Sen. Connie Mack, have recently voiced their support for federal funding of human stem cell research.

Many scientists believe stem cells taken from human embryos—fertilized eggs only a few days old—have tremendous potential for treating a number of medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injuries.

Currently, perhaps 100,000 such embryos have been frozen and reside in in-vitro fertilization centers, left over from attempts to implant fertilized eggs in women wanting to become pregnant. Those embryos are seen as a veritable gold mine of medical research, if only the federal government were allowed to underwrite that research.

Arguments For and Against

Funding proponents make three basic arguments. First, it is very unlikely the tiny clumps of human cells that already exist will ever become people, so why not allow the federal government to fund research on the cells?

Second, many people with debilitating medical conditions would benefit from federal funding of stem cell research because scientists will find cures faster than they would without federal funding.

Finally, since federal funding would bring with it federal guidelines for research practices, we as a society can more easily ensure that stem cell researchers will act ethically.

Opponents of federal funding believe the embryos are human life, and it is wrong to experiment on or destroy them. They also contend there are other sources of stem cells—from adult fat cells and umbilical cord blood, for example—that would be just as effective. A large part of the debate thus turns on what type of stem cells would be most efficacious for medical research.

Evaluating the Arguments

It is important to note that the debate isn’t over whether there will be stem cell research. Many universities, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms are already involved in such research.

Let me say that again, since this fact is often lost in the debate: Many private companies and organizations already fund both animal and human stem cell research. And the federal government currently funds animal stem cell research. The issue is only whether the federal government should dedicate tax dollars toward research on human embryonic stem cells.

The first argument made by the funding proponents is their strongest. Even if everyone agreed it would be wrong to use the existing embryos, leaving them frozen in perpetuity doesn’t seem like a much better option. Ethically speaking, sometimes our choices aren’t between right and wrong, but between wrong and less wrong.

The second argument is much more tenuous. Indeed, any first-year philosophy student (or economics student, for that matter) should be able to tell you that more funding doesn’t necessarily equal better research.

The fact that many conservatives have adopted this argument is particularly odd. Would they also say, for example, that more federal funding for public education leads to better-educated children? More simply doesn’t mean better, whether in research, education, or anything else.

Guaranteeing Ethical Behavior

That some conservatives have adopted the third argument—that federal funding will guarantee ethical research—is nothing short of bizarre. Since when did conservatives come to the conclusion that the federal government should serve as the “Grand Ethicist,” ensuring researchers don’t do immoral things?

Most conservatives criticize federal funding of public education because it means bureaucrats can impose their values on our schools and our children—values conservatives often disagree with.

Conservatives also generally oppose strengthening federal regulatory agencies that are constantly imposing new rules and restrictions on employers.

And many conservatives oppose new medical privacy regulations created during the Clinton administration, for fear bureaucrats will have access to and misuse people’s medical information.

So why do some conservatives now believe government oversight can ensure scientists act ethically?

Grim Reminder

Maybe we all need to be reminded of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. From 1932 to 1972, scientists working for the Public Health Service studied the long-term effect of syphilis in 400 poor black males. The scientists could have treated the men for the disease but didn’t. They deemed the research more important than the lives of poor blacks.

Indeed, when many of them tried to sign up for the draft during World War II, the Public Health Service got them deferred because Army doctors would have discovered the syphilis and treated it.

By the time a journalist broke the story in 1972, bringing the 40-year experiment to an end, 128 of the infected men had died of syphilis or related medical conditions. Forty of their wives had been infected, and several children were born with congenital syphilis. While the federal government eventually provided the men or their families with a cash settlement, no one at the Public Health Service admitted wrongdoing (though in 1997 President Clinton offered a formal apology).

Today, Tuskegee stands as perhaps the darkest moment in American medical research history. This atrocity led to the formation of federally mandated Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that review all human and animal experimentation. I have served as an ethicist on a medical school’s IRB for nearly 10 years.

Would government funding of human embryonic stem cell research be another Tuskegee Experiment in the making? Probably not, but a government that saw no shame in putting marginal populations at risk for the advancement of scientific knowledge should move cautiously.

The Right Call

Unfortunately, conservative support for federal funding on human embryonic stem cells has put President Bush in an awkward position, giving liberals the opportunity to accuse him of being a heartless, pro-life extremist who doesn’t care about people with debilitating medical conditions.

Ironically, the President, a politician and a businessman, has been forced to make a funding decision that depends on a scientific question: Which types of human stem cells are best for medical research? Scientists are by no means agreed. It’s like the scientific debate over global warming—scientists are all over the map.

The President has taken an appropriate step in forming a small commission to study the issue, but he should appoint scientists—not ethicists or politicians—who can debate the issue, compare notes, and report to him on what they believe the science says.

Indeed, stem cell research is evolving so rapidly that the commission may find the answer to which is the most advantageous source of stem cells is . . . none of the above.

Although the President has been backed into a corner over this issue, he doesn’t have to be. He is being pressed to fund the research by scientists, many of whom have a financial interest in getting the funding. He needs his own panel who will report to him independently. We ought to be very careful before throwing federal money at human embryonic stem cell research—especially until we know whether that is the most effective use of the funds.

Dr. Merrill Matthews Jr. is a visiting scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation and policy director for the American Conservative Union Foundation. Matthews is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute and assistant editor for Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].