- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 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 that stem cells taken from human embryos, which are 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, there are perhaps 100,000 such embryos that have been frozen and reside in in-vitro fertilization centers, left over from attempts to implant fertilized eggs in women wanting to become pregnant. These embryos are seen as a veritable gold mine of medical research, if only the federal government were allowed to underwrite the research.
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 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 ensure that stem cell researchers will act ethically.
Opponents of federal funding believe that the embryos are human life and that it is wrong to experiment on or destroy them. It is important to note that the debate isn't over whether there will be stem cell research. Many private pharmaceutical and biotech companies and universities 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.
Funding proponents' first argument is their strongest one. Even if everyone agreed that using the existing embryos were wrong, 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.
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 that researchers don't do immoral things?
Most conservatives criticize federal funding for 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 out of fear that bureaucrats will have access to and misuse people's medical information.
So why do some conservatives now believe that government oversight can ensure that scientists act ethically?
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.
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 black Americans at risk for the advancement of scientific knowledge should move cautiously.
Before conservatives assume that the government will guarantee high ethical research standards, they ought to ask themselves why they fight government intrusion in almost every other area of life.

Merrill Matthews Jr. is a visiting scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation and policy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation.


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