Dubya's Latest Compromise
By John D. Turner
13 August 2001

Recently, President Bush presented his decision on federal funding of medical research on stem cells derived from human embryos. In a very clear and well-presented talk, the President explained the issue, discussed the pro's and con's, and highlighted the moral and ethical questions surrounding the issue. He gave every indication that his decision was not made in a vacuum; that he had given considerable thought to all points of view and weighed each before coming to his decision.

His decision, to allow federal funding for research on existing stem cell lines derived from human embryos, but not on research leading to further destruction of human embryos is sure to anger those who wanted an outright ban on moral grounds, as well as those who believe that the potential for cures to various medical ills plaguing mankind justify any and all means to achieve those goals.

On the surface, his decision seems prudent. As he stated, there already exist 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines, for which the decision on whether or not to destroy a human life has already been made. These embryos have already been destroyed; the stem cell lines derived from them can be regenerated indefinitely, providing opportunity for continuing embryonic stem cell research. Allowing governmental funding of research on these lines presents no fundamental moral dilemma concerning taxpayer funding of the destruction of human life, since someone else already made that decision before us. And who knows? Some wonderful discoveries may be made which may be of benefit to millions of constituents (er...Americans).

Of course to some, providing taxpayer funding for research on these lines equates to a statement by the federal government that harvesting stem cells from human embryos is alright, as long as federal dollars were not involved in the actual death of the embryo. In other words, it isn't really a moral issue here, rather more of a public relations concern.

While the logic here may seem sound, there are some glaring holes. These 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines are deemed acceptable to fund because the embryos they were derived from are already dead. However these lines were created via private research. Given time, private research is likely to derive more stem cell lines from additional embryos using private rather than public funds. As this occurs, doesn't the same logic still apply? After all, the embryos will have already been destroyed, just like the original set. It would be a shame not to use them. Think of what discoveries might be made! This would seem to lead to a "don't ask don't tell" public funding for embryonic stem cell research whereby embryos are killed by private firms to establish stem cell lines, after which public funding for research can be obtained on the basis that the embryos are already dead. Of course, there is no reason why the funding request couldn't be padded to cover the costs of developing the original line in the first place.

Aside from the moral issues, there is the very real argument that no matter how wonderful some might perceive this research to be, it isn't the Federal Government's job to be funding it in the first place.

I have read through my copy of the US Constitution. Nowhere within does it grant the government the right to fund embryonic stem cell research. "Well, of course not!" you may reply. It was written in 1787! They didn't know about embryonic stem cell research back then. That's true, they didn't. But they did still do research, and no where in the Constitution is there anything that gives Congress the authority to fund it.

One of the things I find most remarkable about our Constitution is its brevity. I can just imagine what a Constitution written by our current crew of congress critters would be like. I still remember Ronald Reagan having a copy of the budget delivered via forklift so that people could get an idea of just exactly how bloated the thing had become.

The purpose of the Constitution, as very clearly stated by those who drafted it, was to limit the government to only those items specified as its duties and responsibilities. In fact, it was concern that the government would eventually find a way around these restrictions that lead to the drafting and adoption of the first ten amendments, which we refer to as the Bill of Rights; without which the Constitution would never have been ratified.

The tenth amendment states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people". This means basically that if the Constitution doesn't say the federal government can do something, then it can't. The Constitution doesn't say the government can do anything except a certain list of things, it says rather that the government can't do anything except a certain list of things. The difference is very important, and this amendment was added to make that difference crystal clear.

Article I section 8 lists what the Congress has the power to do. No where in there is any item pertaining to Congress funding any sort of scientific research at all. Promotion of the progress of science and useful arts is mentioned, but only in the context of "securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries"; the enabling directive for the establishment of copyrights and patents.

Article II section 2 lists the powers of the President. No where in that description is the President given any authority to make funding decisions. His "approval" is not required on any item of budget authority (other than his possible veto if Congress sends him something he doesn't like). All financial issues are the responsibility of the Legislative branch of government.

In short, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research should not even be an issue, since the Federal government has no authority to be funding it in the first place. It's not as if a lack of federal funding will make the research dry up and blow away. The research has been continuing via private funds for some time now, and private funds will still be used in the future. The motive behind this isn't so much the money involved (although that will probably be considerable) as it is the government stamp of approval on the research itself. And by his decision last night, Mr Bush has given that stamp of approval.

We are given glowing promises of the potential discoveries that might result if the research is allowed to proceed. Did you notice the qualifiers in that sentence? That's because of course, nothing is assured. Advances in medicine via stem cell research have been made, to be sure. Many Americans already owe their lives or the lives of their loved ones to such research. But the advances made thus far have been made via adult stem cell research, or research using placental or umbilical cord-derived stem cells. Not embryonic stem cells. So far, such cures haven't necessitated the murder of unborn humans to effect their results.

So, what if some remarkable discoveries are made via embryonic stem cell research? Back to the moral issues at hand.

What if scientists discover a cure for cancer, or AIDS, or diabetes (or all three)? And what if only embryonic stem cells will work? As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If your Aunt Sadie has Alzheimer's, and there is a cure...but it means sacrificing some human embryos on the medical alter, what will you do? Particularly if supporting Aunt Sadie is bankrupting (and inconveniencing) your family, and the sacrifice of some minute bit of protoplasm that you can't even see without the aid of a microscope will fix the problem? Does the unthinkable now become thinkable? What if its your wife, or your son, or your daughter that needs some treatment that only killing a human embryo can provide? What if it is you?

Personally, I think that lengthening our lives by killing our children is a sick idea. I have no problem with using stem cells from sources like umbilical cords, placentas, or adult cells. I do have a problem with harvesting human beings for their parts. The argument that these are humans that will be discarded anyway, so we may as well make use of them doesn't hold water. We don't harvest organs from dead humans without their consent, because we are concerned (and rightly so) that if we did, the doctor's best interests and ours might not coincide if we were to end up in an ICU some day. Consent is required to protect us, despite the fact that there is a serious shortage of human organs for transplant into patients who may very well die before they get one. There is no way an embryo can give his or her consent to being sacrificed. You will note that this means that embryos have no protection (they can't vote after all, and thus have no constituency that has to be appeased). And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if demand for embryonic stem cells outstrips the supply of embryos that were going to be discarded anyway, some means will be undertaken to increase the supply.

It just seems to me that this is a moral minefield that we probably do not want to plow. Particularly with federal funds which come from all taxpayers including those vehemently opposed to this on religious or moral grounds, and which the federal government has no business disbursing anyway. Rightly or wrongly, embryonic stem cell research will continue in the private sector, regardless of whether the government funds it or not. This was an opportunity for Mr Bush to stick by his campaign speeches where by he stated, as he did as recently as this past May, that he believed using embryonic stem cells for research purposes was immoral. Instead, he proved himself just another opportunistic politician, seeking the decision that would bring him the best numbers in the opinion polls sure to follow, and the most bucks from the special interest groups. Did he lie to us earlier, or is he just willing to accept immoral solutions if the price is right? Is he just the same as all the other politicians, whose convictions are so flexible that they would make a contortionist look like arthritic octogenarian? I admit to disappointment; I expected better of Dubya.