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"Conservatives on Stem Cell Research": A Commentary

By Merrill Matthews Jr., Ph.D.

Dallas, TX – Many scientists believe that stem cells taken from human embryos, which are fertilized eggs only a few days old, have tremendous potential for treating a number of medical conditions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries. A few prominent, pro-life conservatives, including Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and former Florida Senator Connie Mack, have recently voiced their support for federal funding of human stem cell research.

It is important to note that the debate isn't over whether there will be stem cell research. Many private pharmaceutical and biotech companies and universities are already involved in such research. The issue is only whether the federal government should dedicate tax dollars toward research on human embryonic stem cells. Of course, medical research on human embryos raises numerous ethical questions about when life begins and what type of research, if any, is appropriate.

Conservatives who support funding respond that federal money would bring federal oversight that would impose ethical guidelines on researchers, limiting their ability to do unethical things. What a strange argument coming from conservatives! Most conservatives criticize federal funding for public education because it means bureaucrats can impose their values on our schools and our children - values conservatives often disagree with.

Maybe we all need to be reminded of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. From 1932 to 1972, scientists working for the federal government's Public Health Service studied the long-term effect of syphilis in some 400 poor, black males. The scientists could have treated the men for the disease but didn't. They deemed the research more important than the lives of poor blacks.Indeed, when many of them tried to sign up for the draft during World War II, the Public Health Service got them deferred because Army doctors would have discovered the syphilis and treated it.

By the time a journalist broke the story in 1972, bringing the 40-year experiment to an end, 128 of the infected men had died of syphilis or related medical conditions. Forty of their wives had been infected, and several children were born with congenital syphilis. While the federal government eventually provided the men or their families with a cash settlement, no one at the Public Health Service admitted wrongdoing, though in 1997 President Clinton offered a formal apology.

Would government funding of human embryonic stem cell research be another Tuskegee Experiment in the making? Probably not, but a government that saw no shame in putting marginal populations at risk for the advancement of scientific knowledge could be a threat to our health as well as a blessing.

Before conservatives assume that the government will guarantee high ethical research standards, they ought to ask themselves why they fight government intrusion in almost every other area of life.

Dr. Merrill Matthews Jr. is a visiting scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.