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A Reply To Holcberg & Epstein's Letter to the Editor
Re. Bush's Veto of Stem Cell Bill

by
Lester S. Garrett


On 20 July 2006 David Holcberg and Alex Epstein co-authored a Letter to the Editor of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) which I have quoted in its entirety below.  It was written in response to President Bush's veto of a bill which would have funded embryonic stem cell research.  (Both men are credited as ARI writers/speakers on the organization's website, though that is not noted in their letter.)  My comments follow the text of their letter.

Date:  Thu, 20 Jul 2006 12:44:57 -0500 (CDT)
From:  Letter to the Editor
Subject:  Bush's Opposition to Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Anti-Life

Dear Editor:

President Bush's veto of a bill to remove restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is immoral. Being the first veto of Bush's presidency, it shows once again his commitment to impose his religious agenda on all Americans.

Contrary to the claims of Bush and others who oppose embryonic stem cell research, embryos destroyed in the process of extracting stem cells are not human beings. These embryos are smaller than a grain of sand, and consist of, at most, a few hundred undifferentiated cells.  They have no body or body parts. They do not see, hear, feel, or think. While these early embryos have the potential to become human beings--they are not actual human beings.

To restrict the freedom of scientists to use clusters of cells to do such research on the basis of religious dogma is to violate their rights--as well as the rights of all who would contribute to, invest in, or benefit from this research.

Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize medicine and save millions of lives--and it should proceed unimpeded.

David Holcberg and Alex Epstein

Copyright © 2006 Ayn Rand® Institute. All rights reserved.

As I noted in my response to Dr. Yaron Brook's press release (see my post of 21 July 2006 below), I agree with the criticism of the President's rationale for his veto, but most emphatically disagree with the claim that the veto is "immoral" -- a claim made by all three writers.

But the authors of this letter go further.  Their text is a curious collection of ill-conceived, misleading, and mistaken comments.

By way of example:

Being the first veto of Bush's presidency, it shows once again his commitment to impose his religious agenda on all Americans.

"[I]mpose"?  The man is President of the United States.  He opposes the embryonic stem cell funding legislation on moral grounds and has repeatedly so stated.  Of course he's going to "impose" his belief.  What would they expect him to do?  Betray his own values and sign the proposed legislation into law?  Condemn the faulty reasoning by which the President justified his action.  But don't criticize him for being consistent and acting on his convictions.

Additionally, if the President of The United States believes that protecting human embryos is equivalent to protecting innocent human beings, and that the intentional destruction of embryos constitutes an immoral act, then acting to prevent government funding of embryonic stem cell research is not part of a religious but rather a political agenda.  Mischaracterizing the president's action as part of a "religious agenda" is at best sloppy thinking.

I want take a moment more to emphasize this point.  Bush's conclusion (opposition to embryonic stem cell research) and his reason for it (an erroneous view which equates the status of an embryo to that of a human being) are wrong and should be opposed without reservation.  But given his reasoning, and his office, he acted in a "political" not a religious context.  A district attorney who prosecutes a killer is not imposing his religious agenda on anyone despite the fact that he personally believes his God prohibits murder.

And then there's this:

To restrict the freedom of scientists to use clusters of cells to do such research on the basis of religious dogma is to violate their rights--as well as the rights of all who would contribute to, invest in, or benefit from this research.

Were I feeling generous, I'd call those statements "ambiguous" and accuse the writers of equivocation.  I'm not feeling generous.  Put simply:  those two statements are false.  And Messrs. Holcberg and Epstein should have known they were false.  Their suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding, millions upon millions of dollars are already being spent on embryonic stem cell research.

In 2002 the University of California at San Francisco established its own stem cell research program using private funds.  Here's a brief quote from the University's web site:

"UCSF established the Program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology in August 2002, with a $5 million matching grant from Andy Grove, the chair of Intel Corp.  The match was met, and UCSF has now raised approximately $13 million in donations."

In 2004 the voters of California passed a bond issue which provides "as much as $3 billion over 10 years to pay for research on 'non-qualifying' stem cell lines and on cloning of human embryos for therapeutic purposes."  ( The Washington Post, 4 December 2004)

On January 11, 2005 the governor of New Jersey announced the funding of a $150 million stem cell research center.  ( Washington Post, 18 July 2006)

In May of 2005 the state of Connecticut "set aside $100 million for stem cell research over 10 years in an effort to help its biotech industry compete with California and New Jersey."  ( Washington Post 18 July 2006)

And on 6 June 2006 Harvard University announced "the launch of a privately funded, multimillion-dollar program to create cloned human embryos as sources of medically promising stem cells."  ( Washington Post, 7 June 2006)

And that just scratches the surface.

No one is "restricting the freedom of scientists", or violating the rights "of all who would contribute to, invest in, or benefit from this research."  Individuals are as free today to "contribute to, invest in, or benefit from this research" as they were before the president's veto.  What the veto did prevent was the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.  Yet that very 'restriction' should be supported by everyone who claims to understand and adhere to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

I'll put this another way.  When did adherents of Objectivism begin defending government handouts?  For that is what these authors imply.  To repeat:  the only 'prohibition' is the one against federal government funding.  The president's veto did not in any way restrict privately funded research.  Do these authors mean to suggest that his refusal to provide federal funds constitutes a violation of the rights of scientists who would engage in such research?  Just which rights would those be?  The 'right' of scientists to receive federal subsidies for their research?

Holcberg and Epstein conclude that "[e]mbryonic stem cell research ... should proceed unimpeded."  I'll say it yet again:  The only thing the veto impeded was another federal government hand out.  These gentlemen should reread Ms Rand's essay on "The Nature of Government".  Some very strange things are happening at ARI.

Lester S. Garrett
22 August 2006

[my email address]

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