Commentary

Don’t Politicize Stem Cell Research

This article appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, July 29, 2004.

Ron Reagan addressed the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, calling on the federal government to support fetal stem cell research. His plea was heartfelt and eloquent, but ultimately missed the point.

First, this is not a debate about whether stem cell research should be legal. It is, and no one in Congress or the Bush administration has proposed banning it. In fact, there are at least nine private stem cell research centers across the country. The largest, at Harvard University, employs more than 100 researchers and recently unveiled 17 new stem cell lines.

No, this is really a fight about money, about whether the federal government should fund the research. And, as such, it is a perfect example of how science becomes politicized when government money is involved.

For example, all the political rhetoric may have led people to believe that stem cell research is on the verge of producing a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. In reality, stem cell research has produced far more promising results in areas such as Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and spinal injuries. But researchers and other supporters of government funding have attractive advocates in Ron Reagan and his mother, Nancy. If the Reagans care about Alzheimer’s research, that’s what the media will pay attention to, never mind the science.

This has long been the case with government health care spending. Find a “mediagenic” spokesperson and get him on television and you can get your disease funded. Thus we see an endless stream of television and movie stars trooping to Capitol Hill to testify about scientific and medical issues that they know nothing about.

Opponents of stem cell research are just as disingenuous. Every study of adult stem cells is hailed as a miraculous breakthrough, though most scientists believe that fetal stem cells hold far more promise. Opponents have downplayed or ignored studies that go against their views. Even as Ron Reagan was addressing the Democratic convention, the Family Research Council was issuing a press release highlighting “the failures of embryonic stem cell research.” Theirs is ultimately a moral position but they insist on portraying it as a scientific one.

Both sides in this debate have the best of motives. Supporters of fetal stem cell research see it as saving lives and curing horrible diseases. Opponents object to having their tax dollars used for practices that they believe are morally offensive. In the process, both sides end up distorting science.

By its very nature, government politicizes everything it touches. Science is no exception. Stem cell research needs neither government money nor politics. It is better is to get the government out and let the private sector continue its good work. Those people calling for increased funding could take out their checkbooks and support it. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research would not be forced to pay for it.

The vast majority of medical and scientific breakthroughs in this country’s history have been accomplished by the private sector. There’s no reason for stem cell research to be any different. Let’s end the political debate, and get back to scientific research.

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.