Was Bush Right About Stem Cell Research Morality?

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Spokespeople for President Bush are hailing yesterday's announcement that human stem cells have been produced from skin cells that were dosed with 4 different genes as evidence of the President's ethical wisdom. White House spokesperson Dana Perino declared:

"By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries."

Bush's chief domestic policy advisor, Karl Zinsmeister observed:

"The science has overtaken the politics. If you set reasonable parameters and offer a lot of encouragement and public funding, science will solve this dilemma, and you don't have to have a culture war about this."

Pro-life advocates agreed. Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of anti-abortion activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the research

"…a very significant breakthrough in finding morally unproblematic alternatives to cloning."

Doerflinger added,

"I think this is something that would be readily acceptable to Catholics."

Not so fast with the moral self-congratulation, says James Thomson, one of the researchers who made this advance. As the Chicago Tribune reports:

Thomson, who co-discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998, said political barriers have hindered all such work and stressed that the new research would not have been possible without insights gained from embryonic cells.

"My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back about four to five years," Thomson said. He credited Bush with providing some funds for the field starting in 2001 but said Bush's funding limits "represented very bad public policy as far as I'm concerned. The field has been much slower taking off than it would have been otherwise.

I do wonder how will pro-lifers feel about using stem cell treatments that were developed by methods that they find morally objectionable? Fortunately for future generations, the Roman Catholic Church does apparently believe that it is moral to use vaccines produced using human fetal cells.

Let's all hope this is a true breakthrough for producing perfectly matched cells and tissues suitable for transplantation. After all, skin cells are a lot easier and cheaper to get than are the human eggs used in therapeutic cloning research.

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  1. Oh come off it. This is not an issue about stem cell research legality. It HAS ALWAYS BEEN legal. The controversy is about forcing taxpayers who believe this research is morally repugnant to finance it.

    Come on libertarians!

  2. Stem cell research in a “robustly Christian nation”? I don’t think so. Ask Ron Paul.

  3. Federally Funded Stem cell research in a “robustly Christian nation”? I don’t think so. Ask Ron Paul.

    I don’t think there is a problem with this. JJ is right, and so is Edward. See? We can all be right in Libertopia.

  4. “‘My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back about four to five years,’ Thomson said. He credited Bush with providing some funds for the field starting in 2001 but said Bush’s funding limits ‘represented very bad public policy as far as I’m concerned. The field has been much slower taking off than it would have been otherwise.'”

    Question: Has there ever, anywhere, been a bureaucrat or other recipient of public funding who said they we getting sufficient amounts of taxpayer dollars? Just asking …

  5. Hmm, it seems that both sides may be equally wrong. Or equally right?

    The researcher says “political barriers have hindered all such work”

    Yet Ronald Bailey wrote an article saying that political barriers jump started such work.

    Which is it?

  6. Good thing the Catholic church approves of knowledge gained on morally objectionable grounds, or else all of Mengele’s Jews died for no good cause.

  7. All: May I suggest that you read Bush’s August, 2001 speech on the issue. Bush was happy to fund other types of stem cell research. So given that there was going to be public funding, it seems to me that one important question still is to what extent should particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?

    One section from Bush’s speech that is relevant to my headline:

    I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world. And while we’re all hopeful about the potential of this research, no one can be certain that the science will live up to the hope it has generated.

  8. Inkstained Wretch: No.

  9. This goes to the very core of libertarian objections to government funding of research.

    Firstly, people – including people who object to the research on moral grounds – are being requested to fund the research by taxation.

    Secondly, the government is using its control of those funds to interfere with the research itself.

  10. Off Topic Science news:

    Interesting new research about how babies 6 to 10 months old will choose to play with toys that are “cooperative” rather than “hurtful” to other toys, suggesting that babies innately know the difference between socially naughty and nice.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2007/071121/full/news.2007.278.html

  11. “””So given that there was going to be public funding, it seems to me that one important question still is to what extent should particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?”””

    The religious angle is BS because they don’t really honor the beliefs unless it fits their ends. If Bush truly believes in the Ten Commandments and that life is “a sacred gift from our Creator” he would abolish the federal death penalty.

  12. All: May I suggest that you read Bush’s August, 2001 speech on the issue. Bush was happy to fund other types of stem cell research. So given that there was going to be public funding, it seems to me that one important question still is to what extent should particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?

    Let’s rephrase that Ron. Since the government is going to rob its people of money, how best should it spend it? I don’t know. Please tell us, what is the best, most moral way to spend stolen money?

  13. Ron,

    The answer is easy: no.

    =/;^)

  14. So given that there was going to be public funding, it seems to me that one important question still is to what extent should particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?

    Just because some base their positions on the issue on their religious beliefs does not make it a religious issue.

    Also, just because I disagree with you does not therefore mean that I have to agree with Bush. I oppose his decision to fund other types of stem cell research as well, not because I think they’re immoral, but because I don’t think govt should be funding such things.

  15. I do wonder how will pro-lifers feel about using stem cell treatments that were developed by methods that they find morally objectionable?

    Thanks for asking. There is nothing immoral about using tools whose development involved past immoral acts by others; refusing to use them does not undo the harm they caused.

    I might ask, Mr Bailey, how you as an American feel about living on land that was shamelessly stolen from the Native Americans?

  16. Ron,

    particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?

    In Bush’s case, we can declare his beliefs on stem cell research were based upon religion. What about people who may not be comfortable with abortion and/or stem-cell research for completely humanistic reasons?

  17. crimethink:

    As someone who generally supports abortion, I believe you have made a very thoughtful and honest comment.

  18. You raise a good point, crimethink, but your Native American example isn’t so clear cut. The history of Native Americans in this country is complex.. and really, I think hunter-gatherers have been replaced by agrarian cultures throughout history on every continent, and it would be naive to think that if we weren’t here, another agrarian society would’ve replaced the Native Americans. I would consider specific acts of brutality committed against Native Americans as immoral, but taking over this land is more an evolution of man and society.

  19. “I do wonder how will pro-lifers feel about using stem cell treatments that were developed by methods that they find morally objectionable?”

    Gosh, I dunno. How do libertarians feel about

    (a) Driving on government-built and government-owned roads?

    (b) Borrowing books from government libraries?

    (c) Using a computer network that got jump-started by tax-funded military research during the Cold War (heard of the Internet, anyone?)

    (d) Availing themselves of the benefit of medical research from the government-operated and taxpayer-subsidized National Institutes of Health?

    (e) Buying property whose title is confirmed by records at the government-operated Registrar of Deeds office?

    (f) Relying on research from government-operated, or government-supported universities (i. e., *all* significant research universities)?

    (g) yada yada yada, etc.

  20. Wow, sounds like GW is taking credit for giving the idea to scientists to try different avenues of research. We should put him along side the inventor of the internet Al Gore.

  21. This is great news, but is going to lead to ill feeling the same way as in Jean P. Shepherd’s story about when the nasty neighbors suddenly disappeared before the put-upon Old Man could get his revenge. The solution to your problem, but both sides wish they’d gotten to crush the other side.

  22. This is the same Reason that criticized a privately-funded Catholic school for firing a teacher who spent time teaching students why he was an ex-Catholic. You see, any action motivated by a religious belief is inherently objectionable, even when the action itself doesn’t actually contradict any libertarian principle.

  23. Warmongering,

    I missed that; where’s the link?

  24. After all, skin cells are a lot easier and cheaper to get than are the human eggs used in therapeutic cloning research.

    It looks like Howley sold her’s just before the ova market crashed.

  25. I think hunter-gatherers have been replaced by agrarian cultures throughout history on every continent, and it would be naive to think that if we weren’t here, another agrarian society would’ve replaced the Native Americans. I would consider specific acts of brutality committed against Native Americans as immoral, but taking over this land is more an evolution of man and society.

    I’m not sure I understand why this isn’t a tautology.

  26. As to bioethics: its masturbation. The marketplace will decide, and bottom line is people don’t want to die. None of the “social conservative” positions on this issue hold an ounce of water.

    As for taxpayer dollars, they should be spent on stuff that gives the U.S. a competitive advantage in future industries that are not market-driven yet.

    Wise up: the Asians are going to eat our lunch on this while we wax philosophic about our superior morals.

  27. You see, any action motivated by a religious belief is inherently objectionable, even when the action itself doesn’t actually contradict any libertarian principle.

    Reason has never shed its Objectivist roots. Down thru the years it’s been fairly consistent that way, and that’s why it’s called Reason rather than Liberty or some such.

  28. “So given that there was going to be public funding, it seems to me that one important question still is to what extent should particular religious beliefs set public funding priorities?”

    Bailey again attempts to steal an intellectual base by declaring an ethical objection to be “religious” and therefore out of bounds for the government to consider. While the ethical position that human embryos are not mere objects that carry no moral value is often informed by religious beliefs, it is not inherently a religious notion. Bailey’s is actually questioning to what extent ethics at all should inform decisions on public funding.

    I do not think Bailey would actually like to live in a world where ethics is not considered in forming public policy. Unfourtunately,he seems willing to tie himself into logical knots when someone makes an ethical case that he personally objects to.

  29. Here’s a great irreverent article on the science behind this- why it’s awesome groundbreaking work but really won’t cure anything anytime soon (for example, in one case they found tumors in 20% of the mouse subjects being used).

    http://www.thechemblog.com/?p=704#comments

  30. Embryonic stem cell research was always a too-convenient controversy in search of an actual benefit.

    Like ethanol, federal funding of embroynic stem cells was politically useful because it polled well and made opponents look bad, but was ultimately a wasteful subsidy that produced very little value for the money spent.

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