What's Really Behind Stem Cell Debate

You wouldn’t know it by listening to all the acrimonious condemnations, but President Bush’s veto of the stem cell funding bill passed by Congress does notstop embryonic stem cell research.

It simply says federal money can’t be used to do research on new embryonic stem cell lines; however, federal money canbe used for research on (about 20) federally approved existing lines.

In other words, the issue isn’t whether stem cell research can take place in the U.S.; it already is. The issue is whether scientists can use federal money to pay for that research.

They can use all the private sector and state money they can get their hands on. That’s why the state of California, in a mad dash to make headlines a few years ago, decided to appropriate $3 billion over 10 years for stem cell research.

As the New York Times explains, the legislation “would free scientists to use federal money to do experiments with many of the scores of stem cell lines that have been derived since then either in other countries or with private money in the United States.” (emphasis added)

Incidentally, private sector (i.e., industry) funding has been growing at a faster pace than government funding. An article last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Associationsays that industry funding (in real terms) for clinical trials rose from $4 billion in 1994 to $14.2 billion in 2003. Federal budget proportions remained roughly the same during that time period.

For President Bush, destroying human embryos is clearly a moral issue. But he hasn’t stopped all embryonic stem cell research—indeed, he is the first president to provide federal funding for that research, when it uses the federally approved cell lines.

What he has done is force scientists who want to do stem cell research on new lines to find other sources of money. They want more taxpayer money, and they want it without strings attached.

However, the private sector tends to be both more effective and efficient. The irony for President Bush’s position is that by keeping the research privately funded, it may actually spur even faster development.