Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reply to iPS cells

Victor Lazlo responds to my thoughts on iPS cells. My full reply in a bit:
You wrote:

The Decider decided that creating new human ES cells was wrong. Well, not wrong if you are having sex to make babies, which of course makes ES cells, but wrong if you are doing it in a lab ('it' being making ES cells, not having sex to make babies... although presumably W would be against that, too). Bush argued that we already have some ES lines, so let's just use those. The argument against making new ES lines is that, um, well, god puts a soul in a fertilized egg, and because he's done that, we can't use these lines for research. I'm sure Bush said it better (or not), but let's be clear: the only possible reason one could oppose the creation of new ES cell lines is on the grounds of god & religion.

I think this is 100% correct, but only because you are misrepresenting the argument (at least Bush's argument). Bush's position was that he was against using federal money to create new stem cell lines. This is very, very important distinction from the position you are giving him, which is implicitly "Bush wants to making creating stem cell lines illegal."

The underlying problem is that no one seems to think that anything but two extreme positions exist on a whole host of issues: stem cells, abortion, marijuana, etc. Everyone seems to want to debate it as if it's a binary question. But for any human activity, a democracy has at least five choices:

1) make it illegal, with criminal sanctions
2) make it illegal, with civil sanctions
3) decriminalize it, which is effectively "illegal without any sanctions" or "legal, but you can't promote it commercially"
4) allow it commercially via the free market (with or without regulation)
5) support it with public money and/or public support campaigns
6) have the government run and administer it

An example of (1) is murder.
An example of (2) is jaywalking (or now, pot possession in MA).
An example of (3) is pot possession in Alaska in the old days.
An example of (4) cigarette sales
An example of (5) is NSF-backed science research
An example of (6) is the public school system

The problem is that people talk about stuff like stem cell research as if only choices (1), (5), and (6) exist. Bush's position is actually (4), I think.

And look, I'm not saying Bush is right. But on a whole host of issues, I either want the government to make something legal without supporting it (pot smoking) or not support something without making it illegal (abortion, particularly the use of tax money to underwrite them).

It's not my position on stem cells, but I don't think it's an unreasonable position to say "A lot of Americans, including me, have a significant moral problem with this, so while we're not going to make it illegal, we're not going to spend taxpayer money advancing it or put the support of the federal government behind it."

I mean, that's just Lincoln's position on slavery, 1847-1863.