I recently read an article about the latest stem cell breakthrough in South Korea and it resonated with something I read about some months ago: medical tourism. Medical tourism is the practice of traveling to a cheap country with excellent doctors, typically India, in order to get uninsured medical procedures done. Tech Central Station and Yale Global both have good articles about the topic. The bottom line is that, if you’re uninsured for a given operation, it can cost as much as two thirds less to do it in India even when you take air travel and recuperation time into account. As both wealth and medical expenses continue to mount in the West, medical tourism is bound to take off. The trends all point in the right direction, and besides, isn’t your doctor already Indian? Or maybe she’s Chinese?
What struck me recently is how therapeutic stem cell research fits perfectly into this picture. You might travel to another country simply because a procedure is cheaper there, but you might do it because it is illegal and considered morally reprehensible where you come from. That is, if you have the means to save your child’s life through the magic of stem cells, then you you will fly to find them wherever they can be found.
House Republican leader Tom DeLay has made his position on stem cells clear. “An embryo,” he said, “is a person, a distinct internally directed, self-integrating human organism.” Korean researchers, however, don’t give a goddamn about Tom Delay’s opinion on stem cell research (aside from perhaps being grateful for the extra business he sends their way). And when, years from now, you need stem cells to treat your withering Parkinsonism, it will be cheap and pleasant to fly to Korea to get them. Think of all the morally upright American institutions you’ll fly over to get there. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, while you’re over there, you see an aging and palsied Tom Delay getting a stem cell boost of his own.