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Stem Cell Politics

Anne Applebaum has a nice piece in today’s Washington Post where she explains the current regulatory environment for stem cell research. She writes about how the Democrats spoke last week as if stem cell research were illegal. While she is sympathetic to increased stem cell research, she points out that the current situation is not quite as bleak as it was painted.

Stem cell research is not, in fact, either illegal or unfunded: The federal budget in 2003 included $24.8 million for human embryonic stem cell research — up from zero in 2000. Private funding of stem cell research, which is unlimited, runs into the tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars. The current, admittedly hairsplitting policy came about because Congress in 1995 passed a ban on federal (but not private) funding for any form of research that involved the destruction of human embryos, because it is a form of research many American voters dislike and don’t want to pay for. After some important (privately funded) breakthroughs, the Clinton administration began looking for legal ways to bypass the ban, but never got around to paying for any actual research.

I haven’t paid close attention to the stem cell debate. I assume that stem cell research, like cloning, is inevitable. It is very hard for the state to stop human curiosity. It can slow it down. It can decide not to fund it. It can make it illegal. But it is only a matter of time before we start playing with our genes. Many good and bad things will no doubt come of these efforts. But if most of the good accrues to individuals (a cure for Alzheimers, a child cloned after a tragic accident) and the bad accrues to our culture in intangible ways (hubris, a cavalier attitude toward the mystery of life, etc) then it’s going to happen. I happen to think the good will outweigh the bad, but for those who disagree, the costs of stopping it will eventually be insurmountable. Stopping cloning for example, or genetic fiddling to improve human health, or genetically modeified foods that feed starving people will make the war on drugs look like an enormous success. Stopping research that will allow people to live longer, healthier lives will take too many policemen probing garages and basements along with every university lab and corporate research center.


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