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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
February 15, 2002 Issue

Valuing human life may help, not hurt, Wisconsin business

Embryonic stem cell research debate has quickly shifted
from human good to money

By John Huebscher

One of the "trump cards" played by advocates of embryonic stem cell research is that it is a boon to the state's economic development. They argue that efforts to limit or ban this research are sure to cost Wisconsin financially.

Some proponents of the practice go so far as to suggest that Wisconsin will acquire a reputation as being opposed to scientific advances and such a reputation will hinder our growth.

As one assesses these arguments, two things come to mind.

First, it is striking how quickly the rationale for embryonic research has shifted from the medical to the commercial.

Initially, backers of embryo destruction for research purposes touted the cure of disease and saving of lives as justification for the practice. However, as more and more information surfaces that clinical trials based on such stem cells are years away and that other techniques may be as beneficial, proponents of the research are turning a medical moral question into a pocket book issue.

Where they had previously justified the destruction of embryos as being good for humanity, now it is good for business.

The argument that opposition to such research will turn Wisconsin into a social outcast among scientists is more intriguing. And it overlooks the fact that our state has put the value of human life ahead of economic considerations before.

Like other states formed from the Northwest Territory, Wisconsin entered the Union as a "free state" in which slavery was prohibited.

Despite the fact that cheap labor was not an option here, Wisconsin, like the North generally, grew faster and more prosperous than the slave-holding South. While climate and proximity to raw materials was a factor, it is equally reasonable to suggest that people were more comfortable living in a place where human beings did not treat other human beings as property.

Shortly after statehood, Wisconsin abolished the death penalty on the grounds it was inhumane. Perhaps some people saw that as a sign our ancestors were indifferent to violent crime and our state less safe than other places. However, there is no evidence that Wisconsin's compassionate stance hindered its development in the 19th century.

Of much greater economic significance were the reforms pioneered by Wisconsin during the Progressive Era. Wisconsin was the first state to enact a worker's compensation law and one of the first to adopt the state income tax. Our state also led the way in regulation of public utilities and later in creating a system of unemployment insurance.

These reforms no doubt made life more inconvenient for businesses and employers. No doubt there were dire predictions that policies so considerate of the welfare and dignity of persons who worked for wages might make Wisconsin unappealing to entrepreneurs and manufacturers. In fact, the reforms made Wisconsin a national leader in social policy, our economy continued to grow and the state prospered for decades thereafter.

It is useful to recall this history as we assess the impact of policies that would protect human embryos from destruction. For Wisconsin's past suggests that people in other parts of the nation may view a state that treats human life as a greater good than commercialism as the kind of place they want to call home.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops. Its website is

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