On the campaign trail last Monday, John Edwards stated that if John Kerry were elected, "people like Christopher Reeve will get out of that wheelchair and walk again." Paraplegic columnist Charles Krauthammer quickly condemned the statement as "the worst demagoguery I've heard in Washington in a quarter century." But political opportunism aside, the Kerry campaign's claim that "George Bush continues to stand in the way" of miraculous medical recoveries clouds the truth about the stem cell debate.
President Bush has not banned stem cell research, nor has anyone on either side of the aisle suggested doing so. According to the Cato Institute, there are at least nine private stem cell research centers in the United States. The largest among these, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has a multimillion-dollar budget and employs over 100 scientists dedicated to unlocking the stem cell's medical secrets.
The real dispute between President Bush and Senator Kerry is a dispute over funding. Prior to the president's August 2001 decision, the government provided no funding for stem cell research. The president agreed to fund research on those stem cells already extracted from human embryos, but has blocked government funding of efforts to create new stem cell lines.
A larger principle is at stake in the way the Kerry camp is framing the stem cell debate. Kerry argues that Bush's limited government funding constitutes a "far-reaching ban on stem cell research" This argument hinges on the dangerous notion that the government is America's sole provider of scientific advancement, with no role for private-sector research.
The fallacy of that argument was laid bare as recently as two weeks ago in another arena of cutting-edge technological development, space travel. NASA has spent nearly $15 billion this year on malfunctioning satellites and shuttle maintenance, yet the only manned space flight in the United States this year occurred far outside the government's purview. Dr. Peter Diamandis created the Ansari X Prize in 1996 to stimulate non-governmental space exploration. Modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize that lured Charles Lindbergh to complete the first transatlantic solo flight in 1927, the X Prize was a $10 million award for the world's first private manned space flight. Over twenty teams registered to compete, and on October 4, SpaceShipOne's Brian Binnie soared over 360,000 feet above Earth to claim the purse.
Just as Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis Organization showed that a small, professional team could outperform government efforts in aviation, SpaceShipOne's success holds the promise of a private-sector space tourism industry that will decrease the prohibitive costs of sending payloads into space. The prospects are lucrative enough to lure Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson, both of whom have invested in the SpaceShipOne effort. Branson has licensed SpaceShipOne's technology to form the backbone of Virgin Galactic, whose goal is to build five spacecraft and begin regular space tourism flights within three years.
Through celebrities such as Reeve, Michael J. Fox, and Ron Reagan, the Kerry campaign has asserted that without government funding, there can be no cure for debilitating diseases. But SpaceShipOne's success gives the lie to the notion that life-changing scientific advancement can only come from government coffers. Kerry's politicization of the stem cell issue creates false hope in victims, encouraging a welfare-like dependence upon the government while disparaging the private-sector engines responsible for most of our nation's great scientific breakthroughs.
The author is at the Harvard Law School.