August 6, 2001
Government Cannot Mandate Solutions to Ethical Dilemmas
The intensifying debate over cloning reached the House floor last week, in the form of legislation that not only bans the practice, but also criminalizes it. Meanwhile, the President has indicated that he soon will set forth a national policy regarding stem cell research. The controversy surrounding these issues certainly is understandable, as both involve very difficult and profound moral, legal, ethical, and religious questions. It is a mistake, however, to assume that the answers to these ethical dilemmas can be provided by Congress or the President. The notion that an all-powerful, centralized state should provide a monolithic solution to the cloning and stem cell debates is not only misguided, but also not in keeping with our Constitution. Remember, the republic was established to allow very decentralized, local decision making by states. Because the cloning and stem cell issues are so complex, we should not expect a blanket federal edict to resolve them without further dividing the American people.
In America, the President does not act as a king. The executive does not have the authority to declare stem cell research legal or illegal, valid or invalid. So it's disheartening to hear the media tell us that the President will decide "whether to allow stem cell research." Our society has become too focused on federal approaches to every perceived societal ill, while ignoring constitutional limits on government. The result is a federal state that increasingly makes all-or-nothing decisions that alienate large segments of the population.
Morally complex issues require flexible approaches. The states have successfully dealt with the capital punishment issue for decades without an overriding federal law. The states also crafted their own abortion laws until 1973. Cloning and stem cell research issues likewise should be determined at the state level. Congress forgets that the Constitution grants only certain limited powers to federal lawmakers, reserving all other matters for the states under the 10th Amendment. Therefore, the constitutional approach would be to allow a mixture of moral standards, medical ethics, and local laws to determine the permissibility of cloning or stem cell research in each particular state. Unfortunately, however, neither political party has paid much attention to the Constitution during this debate, preferring instead to focus only on federal mandates and federal funding. No mention is made of states rights, even though state governments would do a much better job of reflecting local sentiment on these ethical issues.
First and foremost, we should insist that no federal funding be used for cloning or stem cell research. Most people don't realize that much of the cloning research performed to date has been funded with federal tax dollars. We can't know whether private money would have been spent in the same manner, because federal funding reduces the incentive for private companies to invest their own research dollars- especially when there is no guarantee that cloning technology will produce worthwhile results. Indeed, my own suspicion as a medical doctor is that the potential benefits of cloning have been overblown. So cloning almost certainly would not be the pressing issue it is today if the federal government had not become involved in the first place. Now, of course, Congress wants to ban the very thing it has been funding for years.
It is especially immoral to force Americans who oppose cloning and stem cell research to fund those activities with their tax dollars. Apparently Congress has not learned from the abortion debate that forcing taxpayers to fund very controversial programs creates tremendous resentment and dissension. In a free society, citizens are not forced to support practices that they abhor. Congress should remain neutral by following a strict policy of not subsidizing research, which encourages private funding while respecting the rights of those who do not want to pay for practices that offend their moral or religious sensibilities.