Sometimes bio-ethics news is tough to follow, even when reporters aren’t deliberately trying to muddle the issue. For example, there are two very distinct kinds of stem-cell research. Some of it is conducted on adult stem cell lines, while other researchers want to use embryonic stem cells. Obtaining embryonic stem cells for scientific research involves creating human embryos with in vitro fertilization, then destroying them to isolate the stem cell lines. This is morally objectionable to many people, so they don’t want their compulsory tax money used to fund it.
Stem cell research has produced some great medical breakthroughs, but all of them came from adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are thought to possess greater flexibility, but it’s all theoretical at the moment.
As the National Institutes for Health states, “Adult stem cells such as blood-forming stem cells in bone marrow (called hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs) are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases.” Embryonic research is invariably described as “promising” in media reports, but that’s all it is: promises. The alleged limitations of adult stem cells are also largely theoretical at this point. Adult cells keep doing things that surprise researchers.
Back in 1996, a law called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for stem cell research in which human embryos are destroyed.
It might take President Obama forever to come up with a budget proposal for the federal government, but he can move fast when he wants to, and he’s not about to let a silly little thing like a duly enacted law stop him from spending money. Only a couple of months after taking office, he issued an executive order which gutted the Dickey-Wicker protections. This triggered a fiery tap dance of injunctions and lawsuits, which lasted until today.
Today, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed a lawsuit from an adult stem cell researcher in Boston, clearing one of the last obstacles to forcing taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research, whether they like it or not. Quite a few of them don’t like it. According to Sam Casey, general counsel of the Advocates International’s Law of Life project, “The majority of the almost 50,000 comments that the NIH received were opposed to funding this research, and by its own admission, NIH totally ignored these comments.”
Newspaper headline writers like to treat this development as a victory for stem cell funding in general, as if an entire realm of science was threatened by Luddites. For example, the Boston Globe headline says “Federal Judge Throws Out Challenge To Stem Cell Funding.” Some publications put “embryonic” in the headline, but most of them make readers dig into the article to procure that little detail. Rarely do they go on to explain the difference between embryonic and adult stem cell research, or which one has been producing all the medically valuable results.
Thus does a government that sits $14 trillion in debt, spending over $4 billion it doesn’t have every single day and insisting it can’t make do with significantly less, blast through its own laws to spend a fortune on what a large segment of the population considers a moral outrage. You’ll never see a spending program cut with the kind of vigor embryonic stem cell research has been pursued. You won’t see many that produce less bang for the buck, either, but the researchers you’re being compelled to fund do make some lovely promises… just like every other tax-eater in Washington.