Monday, July 24, 2006

Stem Cells and Animal-Rights Vegetarians

President Bush's first-ever veto, of a bill authorizing embryonic stem cell research, has flared up once again the debate about the ethics of such research. While a vocal minority of Americans object to this research as destruction of human life, I believe the majority of Americans are taking a more pragmatic view, that the tiny clump of cells called a "blastocyst" represents human potential but not human life, and it is reasonable to use them for life-saving research especially when they are going to be discarded anyway. This debate has not fallen cleanly down traditional political lines. When it was discussed on the NPR radio program Left, Right, and Center, the representatives across the political spectrum all agreed that embryonic stem cell research was worthwhile and not unethical.

The emotional debate about the ethics of the research tends to overshadow the actual question on the table, which is not whether such research should be permitted, but whether such research should be funded by the federal government. It's a different question. Andrew Sullivan (who himself opposes such research) has aired some interesting viewpoints. In one, a researcher notes that it is often not practical for a researcher to isolate his research and funding sources in a lab that typically supports a variety of research simultaneously. (His predicament called to mind those who take the kosher laws very seriously, such that they end up having to have duplicate sets of kitchen service and cookware.) In another, an optimistic libertarian opined that private funding sources already appear to be more than picking up the slack left by the federal non-funding, which is as it should be anyway. (Certainly, the federal funding void has created an opportunity for some states, such as my home state California, to gain a competitive advantage by funding research at the state level.) Given these developments, I'm somewhat sanguine about the President's veto.

I do think that the President's position seems reasonable. He does not advocate banning the controversial research. He merely advocates not having the federal government bankroll it when some taxpayers have moral misgivings about it. It seems a reasonable compromise for both sides. It does, however, raise a question in my mind. To what extent should the federal government not be engaged in practices that some citizens (even if just a vocal minority) have a strong moral objection to. Animal rights activists come to mind, those of the belief that all killing of animals is wrong, and carnivorous behavior is immoral. Such people are certainly a minority, but they also certainly have a very strong moral belief. Should the federal government therefore disengage in any direct activity or funding for activity that supports the meat industry? Should the feds stop providing meat inspection services and animal health programs (e.g., studying of "mad cow" disease and programs to prevent it)? This would seem to be consistent with the President's rationale on stem cell research. And of course the strong libertarians would agree with such a proposal -- not that they necessarily oppose meat-eating -- but that the government should not be involved in it. Food for thought.

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