Stem Cells and Liberty

The recent vote by Congress and veto by President Bush of legislation that would have allowed Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has brought stem cell research and government funding of it back to the front pages of the news. There have been some liberty-minded people have expressed outrage at Bush’s decision. However, I believe that President Bush made the right decision by finally finding his veto pen and using it, but for the wrong reasons.

First and foremost, there is no constitutional justification under Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution for Federal funding of stem cell research of any kind. There is no serious arguement that can be made for funding this on national security grounds that can be made, for example, for space exploration. Stem cell research, as presently being speculated, cannot be used for contagious, deadly diseases, which would justify Federal funding under national security grounds.

Secondly, embroynic stem cells simply have no medical value. Michael Fumento wrote about the “successes” of embroynic stem cells, compared to adult stem cells in National Review Online:

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) receive tremendous media attention, with oft-repeated claims that they have the potential to cure virtually every disease known. Yet there are spoilsports, self included, who point out that they have yet to even make it into a human clinical trial. This is even as alternatives – adult stem cells (ASCs) from numerous places in the body as well as umbilical cord blood and placenta – are curing diseases here and now and have been doing so for decades. And that makes ESC advocates very, very angry.

How many diseases ASCs can treat or cure is debatable, with one website claiming almost 80 for umbilical cord blood alone. Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council, using stricter standards of evidence, has constituted a list of 72 for all types of ASCs. But now three ESC advocates have directly challenged Prentice’s list. They’ve published a letter in Science magazine, released ahead of publication obviously to influence Pres. Bush’s promise to veto legislation that would open wide the federal funding spigot for ESC research. The letter claims ASC “treatments fully tested in all required phases of clinical trials and approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration are available to treat only nine of the conditions” on his list.

Well! One answer to that is that it’s nine more than can be claimed for ESCs. Further, there are 1175 clinical trials for ASCs, including those no longer recruiting patients, with zero for ESCs. But a better response is that the letter authors come from the Kenneth Lay School for honesty, as do the editors at Science.

Now funding embryonic stem cells would be typical for the same government that runs the Postal Service and the government schools, which are both failures. If the embryonic stem cell proponents were big believers in their research, why don’t they open their own checkbooks instead of mine?

Third, there is a moral reason to opposing stem cell research funding. However, Bush has does not comprehend the following reasoning when he talks about morality. The government has no right to take the money of taxpayers and spend it on things they view as immoral and that have no common value. The vast majority of Americans will not benefit from stem cell research because, fortunately, they will not suffer from the conditions that stem cell research will treat. If President Bush truly believed that embryonic stem cell research was immoral, he would push for a ban, instead of the compromise position he came up with in 2001.

Finally, as to the issue of the morality and legality of embryonic stem cell research, good people can and will disagree on this. Where you stand on it depends on whether or not you believe an embryo is a human life, or merely a potential human. Good liberty-minded people have disagreed on the merits and morality of legalized abortion and probably always will, but just like on abortion, we must agree that the government has no right to fund it with money taken from taxpayers who find the procedure immoral and abhorrent.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at The and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.
  • KipEsquire

    There is no faster way to lose an informed libertarian reader than to cite, directly or indirectly, to the Family Research Council.

  • Wulf

    Kevin, to say that embryonic stem cells have no medical value is completely false. The correct thing to say is that the value of embryonic stem cells is arguably marginal compared to adult stem cells. Or better yet, say that embryonic stem cells happen to be the most versatile of all stem cells – and all stem cells are of great medical value.

    Fumento sounds like a cheap hack with his Ken Lay cracks. His direct comparison of ESC to ASC suffers either from ignorance of the chronological and financial research disparities, or from base dishonesty. I’ll refrain from picking between the two and simply dismiss his comments. He’s wrong.

    I have no problem at all with your argument that the US government should not be funding stem cell research of any kind. Such funding is clearly beyond the scope of what libertarians see as a legitimate function of government. I also have no problem with the argument that Bush’s veto is at odds with positions he has taken in the past. His moral arguments are muddled on this issue (at best). But the second of your arguments does not have legs.

  • Doug Mataconis


    For a libertarian/classical liberal, or simply anyone who believes in limited government, it would seem that your first and third reasons are reason enough to think that Bush did the right thing for the wrong reason in vetoing the stem cell funding bill.

    As for the second, I am content to leave that issue to medicine to decide. Although I don’t have the same ethical concerns that Michael Fumento does.

  • KKrassa

    Penicillin is also curing diseases. Should we stop ALL medical research? I hear leeches are making a comeback as well.

    I am an embryonic stem cell advocate and I am not the least bit angry that we have had some medical success with adult stem cells. I am angry that the enemies of embryonic stem cells exagerrate the medical efficacy of adult stem cells and insist we should do one or the other. Forty years of research with one type of cell bearing fruit is just not an argument against doing research with a newly discovered cell type.

  • VRB

    If stem cell research does nothing else, but to refine the knowledge of cloning. More power to It. Clone me an organ.

  • IndianCowboy

    My personal opinion is that ESC’s will make good research models. But ASCs are the future of treatment. Both are necessary.

    ESC’s are not your own cells, selfharvested adult stem cells are. IN other words, the maximum potential of ESCs still leaves you not ‘cured’ but ‘patched up’. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, but it’s really the crux of the issue.