America’s Fateful Decision On Stem Cell Research
I admire Leon Kass, MD very much. He is something of a Renaissance-man, very learned with strong background in Philosophy and Ethics. Fittingly, 10 years ago President George Bush appointed him to Chair the Presidential Council on BioEthics, with the aim of developing a national policy consensus on Human Cloning and other bioreproductive technologies such as germ line modification. From the outset, Kass recommended a total ban on Human Cloning, as well as proceeding extremely cautiously with any bioreproductive technologies which to him (and most of the panel) represented a dehumanized Brave New World.
Consistent with this precautionary approach, because embryo “harvesting”, and manipulation can play a role in stem cell research the Panel recommended against public funding of new stem cell lines, and President Bush implemented this directive via Executive Order. Most religious and self-proclaimed “pro-life” conservatives – at least those who were paying attention – seemed pleased with this decision. It resonated with a speech that President Bush gave around the same at an anti-abortion rally, in which he decried the “use of life as a tool”.
Specifically regarding stem cell research, Kass defended their stance as follows: nothing was preventing private money from funding stem cell research at any level, nor was there anything preventing additional research with the existing stem cell lines. The national government would not explicitly financially fund stem cell research, but would not stop other Americans from moving in this direction, on their own initiative. What Kass and the entire research establishment clearly understood however was that without public dollars, which backed research that did not explicitly demand a profitable return on investment, funding was sure to dry up.
This is in fact what happened. The United States surrendered its lead in stem cell research. Few are surprised now that Peyton Manning, superstar quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, goes to Europe for the latest stem cell treatment on his neck – although this kind of reversal in principle still causes cognitive dissonance for many Americans, who take it for granted that everyone comes to them for treatment.
Whether intentional or not, the USA Presidential Executive order issued 10 years ago had strong implications for Medical Tourism. Those pursuing the latest stem cell procedures increasingly find themselves leaving the United States to undergo treatment. Looking back now with 10 years hindsight, I wonder if Leon Kass still feels he made the right call.