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The stem cell news that came out last week has been making well-deserved headlines. As Father Thomas Berg of the Westchester Institute put it, “a new day has dawned in the world of stem cell research.”

In separate articles in the journals Science and Cell, research teams in Wisconsin and Japan both demonstrated that they have achieved the reprogramming of adult stem cells to exhibit all the developmental capabilities of embryonic stem cells.

What this means is that the debate about whether adult cells or embryonic cells have more therapeutic potential is now moot. It is no longer possible to pit the moral concerns of those who object to the use of embryonic stem cells (because it involves the destruction of human embryos) against research advocates’ claims that the medical potential of embryonic cells is unparalleled by their adult counterparts.

The breakthrough has already proved capable of bridging divides. Professor Ian Wilmut (of Dolly, the cloned sheep, fame) has won kudos from conservative commentators for abandoning his plans to clone human beings and insisting that adult cell reprogramming “represents the future for stem cell research.”

Yet the ethical debates over stem cells, and their attendant policy disputes, are not going away. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a sponsor of past bills that attempted to extend federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, has indicated his continued to commitment to that cause. James Thomson, the scientist who led the Wisconsin researchers, observed that embryonic research was necessary to make the adult cell reprogramming advance necessary. He, too, supports continued research on embryonic cells.

Given this reality, it is important for those committed to limited government and those opposed to embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds to remain united against any expansion of public funding, state (as in California) or federal (as Harkin proposes).

Those who do not share the view that nascent human life must always be legally protected can nonetheless see the point of the rhetorical question posed by John Stossel concerning one such proposal: “Why should people be forced to spend their tax dollars on something they believe is murder?”

Pro-life and Christian groups, meanwhile, who may advocate more vigorous governmental oversight of the stem cell research field, should at the same time agree with the analysis of congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul: “Federal funding of medical research guarantees the politicization of decisions about what types of research for what diseases will be funded. Scarce tax resources are allocated according to who has the most effective lobby, rather than on the basis of need or even likely success.”

To argue against government funding is not, as some assume, to encourage the atrophy of science. Private largesse provided tens of millions of dollars for stem cell research in California alone, The Washington Post reported last year, “dwarf[ing] annual National Institutes of Health spending” in the field.

Universities and for-profit companies, for different reasons, also pour large amounts of money into cell research. Research universities, including those at which the most recent advance took place, compete for the prestige that follows such accomplishments. (Yes, they also sometimes compete for government funding, but individual and foundation contributions are capable of filling that role.)

Biotech companies, of necessity, focus on those avenues of research that hold the most promise. Investors (usually) will not tolerate the pursuit of agendas tangential to the purpose of genuine medical advancement. When such promise is real, however, corporations attract dollars quickly.

Ample — arguably more — progress can be made in many areas of science and technology without the assistance of government money and the rules and regulations chained to it.

The broad appeal of these arguments was made clear earlier this month in New Jersey, where voters scotched the governor’s effort to pump $450 million of borrowed state funds into cell research.

It is hard to see what can be gained by government expenditure on stem cell science, other than providing another platform on which politicians can grandstand. It’s not a very attractive return on the investment. 

Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for  the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004).