This week the U.S. Senate took up and passed a measure that will provide federal funds for research involving human embryonic stem cells. President Bush pledged to veto the measure.The heart of the issue could be the ethical challenges posed by such research, because in its current form it involves harvesting cells from days-old human beings that are killed in the process. This is not the heart of the issue, however, because the Senate didn't debate whether to permit or ban such research. It is permitted under federal law and court rulings that have basically held that the human being before birth is not a person entitled to legal protection.
Instead, the heart of the issue is whether taxpayer dollars should be funneled to these scientific enterprises. Since his national address on August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced that the government would provide stem cells for research using cell lines that were already in existence as of that date, researchers around the country have had access to embryonic stem cells but no federal financial incentive to kill more embryos for their experiments. President Bush drew a morally significant line in the sand that day, but he drew an economically significant one as well.
In a vibrant free market economy like that of the United States, the government is tempted to fund only marginal and fringe business propositions because the ones that have real prospects for success don't generally lack for capital. Think about it for a moment: if a research group in the United States really were just years away from a cure for a malady like juvenile diabetes, would it have any difficulty, given the number of prospective beneficiaries, in raising the venture capital it needed to solve the problem?