Flawed Thinking on Embryonic Stem Cell Research
by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
A recent poll conducted by International Communications Research found that most Americans oppose federal funding of stem cell research that requires destroying human embryos. Although we don’t have reliable regional data, North Dakotans probably oppose funding of such research at a rate higher than the national average. North Dakota law, in fact, not only prohibits state funding for such research, but also prohibits the research itself.
In general, North Dakotans support human life and oppose taxpayer funding for activities that threaten or destroy human life. North Dakota law prohibits human cloning, which is, incidentally, a necessary part of embryonic stem cell research. State law restricts abortion and prohibits state funding for abortion. State law clearly bans physician-assisted suicide.
When electing its federal representatives, North Dakotans have been willing to send representatives with mixed records on life issues. All three support, in principle, a constitutional right to abortion. However, they have opposed government funding for abortion and assisted suicide. In fact, Senator Byron Dorgan sponsored the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997, arguing that, no matter where people stand on the rightness of assisted suicide, “federal taxpayers should not be required to pay for this controversial practice.” North Dakotans might expect, therefore, that their Congressional representatives would oppose federal funding for research that requires destroying human embryos. They do not. For some reason, they consider funding for that controversial practice to be different.
In support of that change in position, they might claim, as many have, that the public overwhelmingly supports such funding. The truth of that claim depends on how the poll question is worded. When the question correctly asks whether the respondent supports federal funding of research that requires the destruction of human embryos, the answer is usually negative. If the question fails to point out that human embryos must be destroyed, the answer is affirmative. In this respect, polls on human embryo research do not differ much from polls on abortion. Despite the similar divide in public opinion, taxpayer funding for human embryo research is, according to them, acceptable, but public funding of abortion is not.
The willingness to support funding for one controversial practice, but not others was just one of several inexplicable, bizarre, and nonsensical positions and statements made by proponents of funding during the recent Senate debate on the issue.
Consider, for example, the decrying that, without government funding, embryonic stem cell research in the United States is falling behind such research in other nations. What is most disturbing about this bald face appeal to global economic competition is that it is presented as if it alone is reason to support government funding. How we compare to other nations is irrelevant if it is something that we should not do, or do not want to do. If other countries out-performed U.S. agriculture by eliminating family farms, would North Dakota’s representatives support abandoning the family farm system in favor of large-scale factory production? If the removal of environmental protections and just working conditions in other countries boosted their gross domestic product, should we do the same? Let other nations race to the ethical bottom.
Several senators noted that the embryos, since they are “extras” created through fertility treatments, will be “discarded,” “destroyed,” and “become waste.” Some stopped at this point to make the utilitarian argument that using them for research is a better use for the embryos. While this type of argument is morally flawed, it is, at least, coherent compared to those who went on to argue that discarding embryos is not the same as “murdering embryos.” I know that under criminal law “murder” has certain elements and that not all killing is “murder.” I don’t think, however, that the senator was talking about the nuances of criminal law. By “murder,” he meant killing. This reasoning returns us to pagan Rome and Greece where killing a child was murder, but infanticide by abandonment was okay.
At the heart of the fight for government funding is a philosophy that scientists and technicians of science should be free to pursue whatever avenues they desire, and get government funding for it. This is evident from such statements like, “scientists, not Congress, should determine what is good science,” “researchers, not the Senate, should decide what type of research to pursue.” We should hope that these statements and others like them are examples of excited rhetoric over substance instead of a course for our future. In a democratic republic, who, if not our elected representatives, is going to place limits on the application of science?