Response to Comments on Stem Cell Research--Posner
There were a number of interesting comments. I will reply to a few.
Several comments oppose federal support of medical or other research. That is a legitimate position, but it is not directly relevant to the stem cell issue. The reason is that banning federal support of stem cell research does not entail a reduction in the total federal funding of research, but merely a reallocation from stem cell research to other research.
In support of federal funding of basic research in general, as distinct from relying on state and private donations, David points out that "Almost every lab in a reputable academic institution in this country pursues multiple projects at once. Thus, scientists from those labs would have to create entirely new labs, devoid of federal funding, to perform even one experiment using stem cells."
Federal fundingof research is not ideal, because of political interference--the ban on stem cell research is only one example. More important is the overinvestment in research on AIDS, relative to the number of lives at risk, and the disproportionate investment in research on breast cancer, compared for example to research on prostate cancer. In general, though, the federal peer review process assures that NIH grants (for example) go to high-quality projects. I do not believe there is the same kind of politicized geographical dispersion that one finds in more politicized and less objective areas that federal largesse supports, such as grants by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
A number of the comments debate what seem to me purely metaphysical questions concerning when life begins, whether five-day embryos should be treated as full-fledged human beings, etc. By "metaphysical" I mean can't be resolved by reference to logic or evidence. They are matters of opinion and endless contestation, strongly influenced by religious views that cannot be verified or refuted (modern religions are careful to avoid proposing falsifiable hypotheses, such as that the world will end on September 1, 2006). I get no nourishment from such debates. I believe that upbringing, temperament, experience, emotion, and certain brute facts determine one's answers to such questions, not truth or falsity. If stem cell researh fulfills its promise, I believe that the moral objections will be swept aside, because even religious Americans are pragmatists.
I do not agree that if you think it's okay to harvest stem cells from a five-day old embryos, you've got no grounds for condemning the murder of children and adults or even the killing of a three-month old fetus. All societies draw lines in these matters; none I think considers a decision to be celibate the equivalent of murder because the decision results in extinguishing potential life. Where the lines are drawn depend ultimately, I have suggested, in our society at least, on practical considerations.