The anger with which senators from both right and left have objected to George W Bush's federal order prohibiting federal funding of stem cell research befuddles me. I wish that they could have found this much anger against any number of other things that have been done by the Bush administration. If perhaps it was only anger at the hypocrisy of Bush's motives, as encapsulated in his quote, "The use of federal dollars to destroy life is something I simply do not support" could perhaps be enough to drive people against him. (For those of you who wish to argue that Bush's support for the death penalty and preemptive war could be morally justified, you would have to take the "simply" out of his statement). But there is a very real issue at stake here: a real issue, that like many ethical issues, often hinges on something that seems obvious. It does seem to be quite non-sensical to insist on deposing of embryos created in fertility treatments instead of using them in a way that could increase our knowledge and possibly our standard of living. Of course, it also would be quaint to not desecrate a holy book, when doing so could perhaps garner information that could save lives. But lets put aside ethical squabling, and get down to counting beans: what do we stand to gain from stem cell research?
In 1970, (to take a fairly arbitrary year, CAT Scans were a new technology. PET and MRI were several years away. The start of the Human Genome Project was 20 years in the future, and in fact it would be seven years until the first bacteria had seven years to be sequenced. Even the short structure of the endorphins, which is all of five amino acids long, wasn't to be discovered for another five years. There were no selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, only tricyclics. The role of antioxidants was just being discovered. The formation of plaques in Alzheimer's Disease was 14 years in the future. I am sure that many more examples of advances in medical technology could be named in the past 35 years. All of this medical innovation has produced a gigantic effect: according to a chart from the awkwardly named "Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics", the average American can expect to live around five years longer now than they did 35 years ago. Of course, not all of that is due to treatment of disease. A further examination of the graph shows that most of that growth is probably due to lower infant and child mortality rates, since the graph also shows that since 1900 (when the list of things that medical science didn't know about was exhaustively long), the average time that 65 year olds can expect to live has increased about 5 years, and that of 85 year olds, less than that. Meaning that most of the centuries medical advances have been good at getting people through childhood, but haven't led to much of an increase in old age lifespan.
So what exactly is the big pay off expected from stem cell research? What are the expected payoffs? How can they be quanticized in terms of lifespan or quality of life? In my writeup on the hedonic calculus of the war in Iraq, I actually pointed out that for the benefits we received, the costs seemed very high. Here, I can't even do that because I don't know what the benefits are supposed to be. Are the benefits even really that much of a pressing health concern? If we have this much of a concern about the as yet unknown benefits of this type of research, why aren't we quite as upset about the probably more realizable benefits, of say, increased prenatal healthcare, or funding drug treatment programs, or decreasing mercury levels in the water, or funding schools fully so they don't have to take money from Coca-Cola, or for that matter, increasing funding for highways to decrease accident rates, or any number of other activities that would seem to have a immediate effect on health and welfare. Why is stem cell crisis such a vital issue, has it somehow been proven to be more beneficial in calculable terms than the literally thousands of other things the government could do to increase public welfare?
If I may inject some of my own opinion here, I would say that just as you would never get the Bush clique to admit that the war is about their desire for omnipresence of direction, you will never get the people who are so desperate for stem cell research to admit it is about the omnipresence of the system.
And, for your perusal, the graph of life expectancy can be found at: