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Freedom vs. Funding

John Tierney (Remember him? No? Just because he's stuck in TimesDelete's black hole?) has an interesting column on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in Saturday's Times.

He argues, essentially, that the research is better off without the federal funding:

Even before this week's veto, anger over the ban has prompted states and private philanthropists to put up their own money. They've committed well over $3 billion to this research in the next decade, which might be more than Washington would have provided anyway -- and the federal money would have come with strings attached.

Stem-cell researchers can benefit from the freedom enjoyed by scientists who developed in vitro fertilization, which Washington also refused to finance because it was originally denounced as immoral. The absence of federal involvement sped progress by allowing unregulated private labs and clinics to innovate.

Given the other sources of money for stem-cell research, including private companies that see potentially lucrative profits, there's no pressing need for Washington to get involved. And as long as some Americans -- a minority, but a passionate minority -- oppose the work, there's no reason to force them to subsidize it. The result would just be more pressure for Washington to impose restrictions on what researchers could do.

When I touched on this subject a couple days ago, libertarians wrote in to accuse me of going soft by supporting federal funding of science. Pro-lifers wrote in to accuse me of not getting the moral difference between killing embryos through IVF or killing them through embryonic stem-cell research. My point was that it's inconsistent to say IVF should be allowed but not to fund stem-cell research -- assuming the federal government was going to fund other types of basic science. The majority of Americans (by far) support stem-cell research, so the argument that people would be forced to subsidize research they find morally repugnant is a weak one. In a democracy you fund lots of stuff you don't like when the majority says so.

Anyway, the Tierney argument provides another coherent framework -- the one I subscribe to. The government doesn't fund research and doesn't ban it either (of course, no one's trying to ban the research in this debate). What's more, private philanthropy and the free market ultimately do a better job anyway.

What bothers me still, though, is that opponents of embryonic stem-cell research can't just be upset by the idea of federal funding. If the research is "murder" or crosses some moral line, then there's no rational position but to support an outright ban on it -- and on IVF, which kills far more embryos.

To be clear: I'm not supporting any such ban. I want to see this research continue. But it seems to me there are two binary choices: A) It's either moral (and legal) to create embryos for the purpose of destroying them OR it's not (and, thus, IVF and embryonic stem-cell research should be outlawed), and B) either the government funds basic science (including embryonic stem-cell research) OR it doesn't.

These two questions are mixed up constantly in this debate. But if we've already as a society essentially agreed that embryo-destroying research is permissible (if not beyond controversy), then it doesn't seem to me there should be quite so much fireworks around the question of federal funding.

Unless it's all just a way for the GOP to excite its religious base. Oops ... answered my own question.