07 August 2006

Stem Cell Controversy: Veto City

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Embryonic stem cells are cells that are taken from a three to five day old embryo. An embryo at that stage is largely undeveloped in it consists of a basketball-like clump of around 50-150 cells. The embryonic stem cells can renew themselves for a long time and can generate cells with a variety of functions (e.g., they can generate cells that are part of the heart, lung, and skin). These attributes lead some medical researchers to believe that such cells hold promise in treating diseases such as Parkison’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes and toward treating spinal cord injury and heart failure. On July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have permitted the government to fund research on embryonic stem cells that were left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. The research is controversial because it involves either destroying an embryo or cloning.

The destruction of embryos led President Bush to argue that the bill was unacceptable because “it would support the taking of innocent human life.” In my next column, I will argue that this was incorrect since early human life is different from personhood and it is persons who have a right against being killed. In this column, I want to focus on two flawed arguments that are common in Congress and the relevant scientific and ethical communities.

Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and columnist Mitch Album have argued for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research because it puts an otherwise wasted resource to good use. Album, for example, quotes Dr. Sue O’Shea, director of the Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research as stating that per in vitro treatment, roughly 20-30 embryos are created and then thrown away. He then argues that performing research on these embryos is surely as respectful toward them as throwing them out. Album dismisses the claim that they would otherwise be adopted since there have been only 128 adoptions of such embryos in the past nine years and there are 400,000 frozen embryos. Note that stem-cell opponents dispute this second figure.

The problem with this argument is that it treats letting a human being die and killing him as morally equivalent. This is counterintuitive. For example, consider if we had several patients who were going to die within 24 hours and whose organs could be harvested to save others only if we killed them, albeit painlessly, and surgically removed their organs. We would fail to respect these patients if we killed them even though doing so would make the world a better place. This argument does show that for someone who thinks that human embryos are human lives, in vitro fertilization clinics are horror shows, but this is not the issue that Congress and the President addressed.

Some ethics committees (such as The President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004) have suggested that embryonic stem cell research is morally permissible only if the embryo is dismantled early in its development (specifically before it is ten to fourteen days old). A closely related position is that it is permissible if done before this point. As summarized by William Saletan, the ethics committees often cite a rough convergence of different features of the embryo: individuality (twinning won’t occur), organization (the division and differentiation of cells), implantation (attachment to the uterine wall), and the development of a nervous system. It’s clear that none of these changes matter. Consider twinning. Imagine that in adulthood, a single human could divide into two persons similar to how an amoeba divides. This wouldn’t show that killing an adult is permissible. Given this, it’s hard to see how it’s relevant in the context of embryos. Organization is similarly irrelevant. In judging the value of an early stage in human life there’s no reason why it should matter whether a relatively small number of cells are organized or not. Implantation is also irrelevant in that a being’s rights or value can’t depend on what it’s connected to. The concern over whether the embryo has a nervous system is just a backdoor method of focusing on consciousness. However, since plenty of animals we eat every day are conscious, this is plainly irrelevant.

In any case, regardless of whether embryonic stem cell research is permissible, it doesn’t follow that the government should support it. Michael Tanner of the CATO Institute points out that stem-cell research is already legal and well funded by the private sector. He notes that in 2005 such research received $102 million in venture-capital funding and is also pursued by corporate giants such as Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, and Novartis. Since federal funding will likely displace private funding, and poses a substantial threat of politicizing research, it will likely make things worse. The inefficiency of the government is well established and the chance of the research not being politicized via the politics of abortion is incredibly small. Remember this is the same group of buffoons that jumped into the middle of the Terry Schiavo fiasco. In the end, then, Bush was correct to veto the bill, but not for the reason he gave.


The Objectivist said...

In the next blog, I'll be arguing that the justification for stem cell research has interesting implications for infanticide. I wonder if persons have strong views about whether the two are related.

Mike said...

I don't see the active/passive distinction in this case. It's not clear to me why you consider "throwing away" an embryo to be morally equivalent to letting it die. Isn't the embryo being actively killed in both scenarios? (Also, not everyone buys into the active/passive distinction [pdf link] in the first place.)

I think the private funding issue is a canard, because a similar argument could also be made for other medical research done on the government dime, and nobody (outside of CATO) is making arguments about those other areas.

The Objectivist said...


I very much enjoy your points and apologize for not getting to them sooner.

ISSUE #1: Is throwing an embryo away a type of killing?

I take it there are three ways to draw the side-constraint that the active/passive distinction is designed to emphasize: act/non-action, cause/non-cause, intended/not intended. I take it that a person causes a result only through an action (because only events cause outcomes) and hence the first two distinctions can be combined.

Let us consider if an embryo is merely allowed to stay frozen long enough so that it degrades and then becomes non-viable. Did the in-vitro fertilization lab take an action against it, cause it to die, or intend it to die. None of these seems true. Hence, this looks like a case of letting die.

In fact, the IVF labs apparently burn the embryos, so they are in fact involved in killing. However, even if they are involved in killing that still doesn't warrant other people killing. For example, if the Nazis are planning to kill Jews or Gypsies, that doesn't warrant me using them for medical experimentation that I know will bring about their death.

The Objectivist said...


Again, I enjoy your comments. Let me address the second issue.

ISSUE #2: Is the active/passive distinction isn't morally relevant?

I guess I think that anyone who thinks that there are restraints on maximizing the good in some sense is committed to the active/passive distinction or one of its close cousins.

For example, let's ask ourselves whether it's okay to cut up a healthy person to save the lives of five persons who need organs to live. This example comes from Philippa Foot or Judith Jarvis Thomson - I can't remember which.

If someone thinks that the answer is no, then what explains why not? It presumably is going to be something to do with the rights of the victim or the mental state or act of the agent. The latter two factors are clearly the active/passive distinction or their cousins.

The former (right infringements) also relates to the active/passive distinction since an agent can infringe on someone's rights only if he does soemthing to the other only via an act. Here I leave aside duties to act that come about via promises or consent since these arguably can be construed as compound actions. This is another instance of the active/passive distinction or its cousin theory.

The Objectivist said...


Issue #3: Should the federal government get invovled in funding medical research?

An excellent point since if the federal government should be involved at all, then this seems to be a good area.

Now you're right that the libertarian crazies (of which I'm one) oppose any such spending. As a side note, I would ask you where in the Constitution you see this spending authorized.

Leaving aside the crazies, I'm a little concerned about forcing people to spend money to support programs they find incredibly offensive and unjust and that isn't related to basic core functions of the government.

I am not sure what conduct or speech truly offends you (I'm not sure any does for me - well, perhaps repeated claims that Senator Lieberman's is a man of deep principle and integrity) but should we really be forcing people who disagree to pay for it.

For example, promoting abortion among parents in crime-prone neighborhoods probably will have great utility. Do you have any concern about forcing pro-life taxpayers to pay for programs that encourage and cover the costs of such abortions?

Forcing persons to support such programs strikes me as problematic even if one is pro-choice, as I am.

The Constructivist said...

O, looking forward to your next column where you plan to take on the huge task of defining humanity and personhood in 750 words or less!

What do you think of actions by governments like South Korea's, Singapore's and the state of California's to aggressively fund stem cell research--and attract top-level scientists in the process? Does it lend support to your support of Bush's first-ever veto (on the grounds that there's no danger of the research not being conducted)? Or will this government money also displace private funds and politicize the research? Why?

One final comment on the supposed inefficiency of government investments vs. corporate investments. There are plenty of examples of government-directed projects that have brought huge returns: locally, take the Erie Canal; from Japan, take the state telecommunications agency that became NTT (one of the most profitable corporations in the country); globally, take the development of the internet. To me it's all venture capital, so what's the big deal if it comes from shareholders or taxpayers (whether or not there's a return--look up the failure rate of new businesses)?

The Constructivist said...

O, perhaps a later topic for the column, something that would allow you to explore exactly laissez-faire you are on economic matters, do you think we need the Fed anymore? Would capital be allocated more efficiently if governments got out of the interest rate business? If they got out of the currency business entirely?

The Objectivist said...

You raise two excellent points. I'm not sure I have answers to them but I'll give it a try.

First, the funding of stem-cell research by entities such as states (California and Connecticut) and South Korea suggests that there is an expected return for this type of investment. Isn't this evidence that it is money well spent and that the federal government should therefore get into the business?

Unless this is a public good (and I'll address this on the next post), I don't see why this is evidence of a good investment. In general, I don't know of any evidence that suggests that government investments are more efficient or better planned out than private investments.

This can be seen in that the government had no role in many of the goods and services (e.g., the market-beating efficiency of Walmart and the widespread sales of hollywood and video games) that propel our economy.

In addition, it arguably is helping to kill some industries (e.g., airlines) by allowing the weakest competitors to stay alive with repeated bailouts. Witness the billions given out to the weaker airlines in 9-11.

In short, with regard to non-economic goods I don't see why we should think that government investment will beat the market. Would you invest in a government financial fund?

The Objectivist said...


Your second point, another strong one, is that basic research in science is a public good and that private industry can't fund public goods. Analogies include the Erie Canal and the development of the internet.

The idea here is that since we can't exclude users at a reasonable price and since one user's consumption doesn't diminish another's consumption, the market will underinvest in these goods.

However, if it is a public good, then it looks like an international one. That is, U.S. citizens can free ride on the basic science that is done elsewhere.

By analogy, my understanding is (and I might be way out of date or just plain wrong on this one) the U.S. does a lot of basic research in other areas of science that is then used by other countries (e.g., Japan) to build their high tech goods.

If the concern is to attract engineers or other high-tech workers that tend to associate with basic research institutions, why not do so directly via grants.

The Objectivist said...


Do you have any wariness about forcing a lot of taxpayers to pay for something that they find morally disgusting?

Especially, when this expenditure is not necessary for our survival or way of life (as is the military, police, environmental protection, and arguably public goods like the roads), does this raise a concern for you?

By analogy, imagine that the vast majority of American taxpayers think we should subsidize Christian churches (the 1st Amendment is suitably modified by the current political hacks - see John McCain). I'm guessing you're opposed to this.

1. Why do you think this is wrong?

2. Doesn't your response to 1 raise a concern similar to mine about running roughshod over taxpayers' deeply held views?

The Objectivist said...


I don't know enough about the Fed to know whether it should be fully privatized. I know that at one point in time in this country's history banks had different notes and that it's currently legal to have private currencies. See, e.g., Ithaca Hours.

The Fed looks a lot more like a public good that we can't free ride on than does stem-cell research. However, I don't know enough to comment on whether the fed should be out of interest-rate business.

The Objectivist said...

Dear TangoMan and Constructivist:

I take it that your argument for federal funding of stem-cell research is that it is a type pf public good (in the loose sense) in that it is prohibitively expensive to prevent some persons from benefitting from the good and that one person's consumption doesn't prevent another person from benefitting from it. Given this the market will underfund it and hence we it will be inefficiently funded. Hence, your claim is that the U.S. government should fund it.

Here however are some problems with this argument.

1. Free Ride on Other Countries: Why not let foreign governments fund it and then free ride on their findings? I'm guessing that a large portion of the Japanese high tech sector used to be based on this type of free riding. What's wrong with doing it here?

2. Let States Compete: Why not let the states do it and then see whether the market rewards them? We could have leftist states like California and Connecticut that prefer basic research and other states (perhaps Texas and Florida) that don't. Then we can see whether the market favors states with these programs to ones that don't.

3. Encouraging Other Government Spending: Camel in the tent effects. Even if stem-cell research funding is a good idea, it's yet another program adding further support to the notion that the government should support all good things in life. This might lead to, and I don't have any evidence for this claim, but the notion that the government should further fund basic research in alternative energy sources, marital studies, etc.

4. A Real Public Good? Is it really true that this is a public good? You know far more about this than I do, but I'm curious as to whether Pfizer, Monsanto, and others couldn't make profits off of basic research by treating the findings as corporate property rather than releasing them to peer reviewed journals.

5. Outdated Constitutional Ideas: I doubt you'll find this argument convincing, especially given the million other things the government is involved in, but I claim that nothing in the Constitution permits such research. Granted my reading of the Constitution has taken an absolute beating, but Article I Section 8 lays out the limits of government spending and nothing like research or science is included.

6. Liberty: Here we are off into the sloppiness of philosophical arguments on government authority, but why should one person be forced to pay for research he neither agrees with nor will benefit from? This strikes me as having some similarity to eminent domain cases where we take property from a less efficient user and give it to a more efficient user. We then say the benefits outweigh the costs, and someone's private property rights just have to give way. Are there any non-economic limits on the reasons for which someone's income may be taken?

The Objectivist said...

Here is TangoMan's response to my argumenTo the stem-cell issue:

Point #1 - Yes, public goods. Free-riders are indeed a problem, but they are mostly irrelevent. An apt anology is the free-riders under the US military umbrella, especially with reagards to safeguarding the transit of oil on the high seas. The US certainly benefits from an assured supply chain, as do the free-riders, but we also benefit from the extensive military infrastructure. If we could source all of our oil from domestic sources, Canada and Mexico, then there would be no need to assure the supply chain eminating from the Middle East, though we'd likely continue to do so, via our military, for other valid reasons. For instance, we'd likely benefit from the economic stability that an assured oil supply would provide to the economies of other nations. Imagine the havoc to our economy if we are untouched by an oil crisis but other nations are crashing into depression, warmongering, etc because their oil supply chain was cut. Our economy would have to endure cancelled contracts, disrupted imports, etc.

Same with stem-cell research. If we reduce public funding and intend to rely on free-riding on the research coming out of other countries, then we likely lose scientists, post-docs, etc, we are also behind the curve, and by the time the research hits the literature, the patenting of relevent and off-shoot research, has already been done, the academic-commercial relationships have flourished elsewhere, and what we're left with is trying to chart a course that avoids the patented research and looks to exploit refinements. Further, what hits the literature is only a skimming of the body of knowledge that has accumulated.

In order to avoid the free-rider issue we'd have to also sacrifice other benefits. IMO, the cold calculus doesn't favor such a trade-off. Free-riders, like with the military funding, are unavoidable.

Point #2 - I think that that's a good idea, though to implement it we'd have to redesign Federal-State relations, for the taxing authority of the States is already stressed in comparison to the Feds. Generally, I think it's a bad idea to have only a small locus of gate-keepers in charge of funding. I'd prefer the funding source to release the funds to a wider array of decision-makers and then let the decision-makers reap the rewards and penalties of their decisions.

Having 50 State level funding authorities would be preferrable to having a handful of Federal funding authorities. Better yet is for each state to endow foundations to distribute the funding and also to reap the licensing rewards. Over time some foundations would be more successful than others and they should be rewarded for having made good funding decisions.

Point #3: - Yes, gov't is evermore instrusive. That's a problem. Here too I think that the root of the problem is the design of governance that we have. Have you read Hermann-Hoppe's "Democracy - The God That Failed."? The most salient argument for me was the where he noted that current leaders have no vested interest in the long-term capital structure of the nation. Contrast this to a Monarch, who owns the nation. The Monarch isn't likely to embark on a spending binge which brings short term popularity but undermines the long-term prospects of his property. We need to find a method of incentivizing balance sheet decisionmaking into the current mode of income-statement decisionmaking favored by our political system.

Give our political class some incentive to manage wisely, even in the face of costs to short-term popularity, and you've provided a method to curtail superfluous gov't spending and enhance productive spending.

Point #4 - Yeah, I do think that this really is close a public good type of argument. This is likely linked to the original intent of intellectual property laws. There is a benefit to society in having IP be publicly shared in exchange for state sanctioned limited monopoly. If we have Pfizer hoarding their basic research, Monsanto doing the same, Merck likewise, then all of these trade-secrets are unavailable for intellectual cross-fertilization inspiration, there will likely be a lot of duplication in research programs, etc.

Further, if we're the odd-man out and we're still bound by respecting the IP laws of other nations, then Pfizer's secret body of knowledge, even if they discovered it first, will likely preclude them from capitalizing in foreign markets, where some other entity has duplicated their research and published it, or patented it.

Point #5 - Well outside my area of expertise but from what I see the Supreme Court has been quite accomodating of loose interpretation of the Commerce Clause. Didn't they use that to prevent Oregon from moving ahead with their euthanasia law, or Oakland from permitting the sale of marijuana? I could be wrong in my recollections on these examples.

Point #6 - The philosophical issues here are quite tangled, I would agree. Perhaps the best way to untangle them, keeping in mind that most people actually prefer an expansive gov't, just objecting to spending on issues that they don't personally favor, is for a movement to implement taxpayer directed spending priorities. On a tax return, the tax payment may be directed at 100-200 different departments, agencies, etc, with 5-year rolling funding madates to alleviate the boom-bust cycles of favored-disfavored programs in reaction to news of the day. Thus, someone who objects to abortion can direct none of their tax money to state financed abortion services and direct a portion to state directed adoption services, while their counterpart can direct their funding to abortion clinics and sex ed classes, etc.