September 2001 -- The current debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research raises two basic questions: "Is it morally and legally proper to use human embryos for such research?" and "Should government funds be used for this research?"
The promise of embryonic stem-cell research is certainly great. Because stem cells have not yet differentiated into specialized somatic cells—such as skin cells, liver cells, muscle cells, and nerve cells—they can potentially be used to develop treatments for degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, or help to repair damaged tissue from spinal cord injuries, heart-attacks, and strokes. Theoretically, stem cell research has the potential to repair any bodily tissue; it could help cure everything from paper cuts to cancer.
Of course, embryonic research is still just that: embryonic. While researchers have successfully directed differentiation in human stem cells, actual treatments are still a long way off. And although current federal guidelines allow federal research money to be used in embryonic stem cell research, federally funded laboratories would be allowed to use only those embryos discarded after in-vitro fertilization procedures. The current guidelines, proposed during the final months of the Clinton administration, would still prohibit laboratories from creating human embryos exclusively for research purposes. Because the guidelines were changed so late in the Clinton administration, however, they have not been applied. No grant applications to the National Institutes of Health concerning human embryonic stem cell research have yet been approved. Although private laboratories operating without governmental assistance have been engaged in embryonic stem cell research, including one laboratory that created human embryos exclusively for research purposes, the vast majority of premier laboratories in America receive federal support of one kind or another. Because federal money is so ubiquitous in medical research, the lack of federal support retards the progress of stem cell research in America. In fact, prominent research scientists are already leaving for Great Britain, declaring their independence from restrictive regulations in the United States.
President Bush is currently deciding whether or not to revise federal guidelines to close the existing loophole in the law and prohibit federal research money from being used in any embryonic stem cell research. His torturous decision-making process has generated extensive debate about the ethics of the research.
The ethical question turns on the issue of when a human life begins, i.e., the life of a distinct, individual human being—a person. There is no simple answer, because the different dimensions of a person's identity emerge at different points in what science tells us is a continuous and complex process of development. Genetic identity is present in the fertilized egg (the zygote). Cognitive identity emerges later in the course of prenatal development when the fetus acquires the neural basis for conceptual thought. Its biological identity as a distinct organism begins to emerge at the point of viability, and is fully present at birth. The person's moral identity as a being capable of voluntary choice on the basis of knowing right from wrong, his spiritual identity as a self-consciously differentiated personality, and his legal identity as a full bearer of rights and citizenship—these are all later developments of childhood and adolescence.
While there can be honest philosophical disagreement about the point at which personhood begins, there is no rational, secular basis for pushing that point all the way back to conception. It is true that the zygote is the first stage at which the genetic identity of the person-to-be is fully determined; and that fertilization activates the egg to initiate the processes of cell division and growth that will ultimately produce a new human being. But it is also true that a single zygote can divide in a way that produces more than one individual (identical twins, triplets, and so forth); and that many other factors during pregnancy affect the biological nature and viability of the fetus.
The most important consideration, however, is man's essential nature as a rational animal. In regard to our animal nature, the key development is the ability to initiate action in support of our lives; in regard to reason, it is the development of the cortical areas in the brain. Thus it seems most reasonable to set the threshold for personhood somewhere during the later stages of pregnancy when the nervous system has developed and the fetus is becoming viable—the same standard applicable in regard to the issue of abortion. (See William R Thomas, "Debate: abortion," Navigator 2,7 March 1999 .)
In some respects, stem cell research is a much clearer issue than abortion. The human embryos used in such research are blastocysts of only about 100 cells. This stage occurs within a few days after fertilization, long before an abortion would be performed, and long before anyone could rationally attribute a distinct individual identity in any but the bare genetic sense. In addition, stem cell research promises enormous benefits in extending lives and alleviating suffering and disability, whereas an abortion is the simple destruction of the tissue.
On the other hand, the prospect of creating embryos deliberately for the purpose of research—for the purpose of manipulating them, extracting value, and then discarding what's left—is a key difference from abortion, and one that troubles many people. The scientists, to put it bluntly, would be creating something that might develop into an individual person in order to use it as a means of helping other persons. Those who are troubled by this feature of the research may be reacting not on the basis of religious dogma but rather on the basis of the rational principle that individuals are ends in themselves, not means to be sacrificed for the ends of others.
The fact remains, however, that the blastocyst is not an individual person, not yet, not by a long shot. The individualist principle is simply not applicable. For that reason it is irrelevant whether, as some have alleged, it would be possible to use stem cells from adults without having to rely on embryos (Adult stem cells, found throughout the body, are multi-potent stem cells capable of differentiating into some, but not all, of the somatic cells of the human body. By contrast, embryonic stem cells are pluri-potent; they can differentiate into any type of somatic cell.) If the embryos are not yet human individuals, then there is no moral issue at stake here; the scientists should be free to decide on scientific grounds which type of cells hold the most promise for research.
But should the government fund their research? That is the second major question in the debate, and the answer is not as clear.
Those who work to prohibit stem research do so on religious or other grounds that go beyond the undisputed facts, and thus want to impose their personal morality on others. Their opponents argue that the government should fund such research because it would achieve things they value. Both sides are asking the government to legislate their particular values.
By contrast, Objectivists (and libertarians in general) distinguish morality from politics. Medical research is a morally admirable activity but not a proper function of government, since it has nothing to do with the protection of individual rights. When the government takes money by taxation, it deprives the people who earned that money of the freedom to decide how they will use it. Some might have chosen to contribute to other sorts of medical research; to contribute to education or the arts instead of medicine; to invest their money in their retirement instead of investing it in a charitable cause; or to spend it rather than invest it at all. That is their right—it's their money. In addition, the government is violating the integrity of those who morally oppose stem cell research by forcing them, as taxpayers, to support it financially.
But the question is more difficult when we take account of the political context for this question. The political opposition to stem cell research is coming from the same religious quarters as the opposition to abortion rights. The largest and most vocal opponent is the Catholic Church; the pope himself made a personal appeal to President Bush. Some religious spokesmen rely on the dogma that God creates a new soul at the point of conception, others on the more general feeling that human life has an intrinsically sacred quality that must not be tampered with.
Neither Bush nor any other politician at present is going to decide, as a matter of principle, not to fund medical research as such. If funding for embryonic stem cell research is specifically withheld, while other research continues to be funded, the decision will be correctly seen as a victory for the religious right. It may strengthen their anti-abortion crusade and their other efforts to legislate a religious ethic. And it is more likely that the government will simply spend the funds elsewhere than return the money to its rightful owners.
Unfortunately, we can imagine only one satisfactory resolution of this issue: continued federal support of embryonic stem cell research. In this policy debate, as in most, there are very few easy solutions. In this debate it's important to remember that politics derives from ethics. Given the choice between losing ground on a fundamental ethical issue—the locus of human rights—and maintaining the status quo on a derivative political issue, like subsidies for research, we do better to defend the ethical principle now and fight against subsidies in the future. We will have no means of fighting subsidies, or regulations, or other violations of our rights, unless we have a sound theory of rights to appeal to. And that means a secular theory, grounded in man's nature as a rational being.
This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.