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Liberals and Their Ill-Liberal Policies

I am sometimes baffled by my fellow liberals in their social priorities. Why, for instance, does stem cell research receive such political support, and money, while many more pressing needs exist in this country? At the same time that the ballot initiative in California won $3 billion in state bonds to initiate a stem cell research program, the media there was reporting that there are 2.5 million illiterate adults in that state. There is plenty of experience on successfully teaching adults to read, plenty of evidence that an adult illiterate has an almost hopeless economic future in this country, and plenty of evidence that a literate citizenry makes a far greater economic and social contribution than an illiterate one. The best that can be said for stem cell research is that it is “promising.” In New Jersey, the aim is to raise $300 million for a stem cell project. New Jersey is home to the city of Camden, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the country. It could make better use of that kind of money.

I can only offer some hypotheses. One of them is that when George W. Bush and his crowd, luddites and religious extremists to those on the left, did not like embryonic stem cell research, that automatically made it a major cause for liberals. Well, there is no doubt that, if Bush opposes something, that makes it tempting to embrace it. His common sense and good judgment are not excessively noticeable.

Another hypothesis is that many liberals have embraced the medicalization of everything in sight, advocate an endless war on death and disease, and support ever-increasing research budgets, far more enthusiastically than a few decades ago. In the 1960s and at least part of the 1970s, liberals tended to be in the vanguard of critical thinking about medical progress, willing to ask the hard questions and, if necessary, to hold up alleged progress. That was the role of Science for the People, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and of many of the scientists who brought about the moratorium on recombinant-DNA in the mid-1970s. That was considered the proper liberal stance.

By the 1990s, that movement had faded, its place to be taken by a fair number of bioethical cheerleaders for science, fast to shoot down objections to this or that line of research, and by an almost total disappearance from the scene of scientists willing to be troublesome. And many bioethicists found it hard to think of any good reasons why they should not be supported by the pharmaceutical industry or help them, for a modest fee, solve their ethical problems. Stem cell research has just the kind of enemies, deliciously awful, to make the cheerleading all the more virtuous. What could be in greater need of defense than the beleagured American research industry, down to its last $100 billion or so in expenditures each year, and maybe slipping from the 20 percent profit margin traditionally enjoyed by the drug companies? I suppose there are many ways of speaking truth to power that I have overlooked, but I doubt that technological boosterism is one of them.

My last hypothesis is the most self-evident. The California stem cell initiative had a super-rich real estate tycoon leading the charge, lots of money from the biotechnology industry, the support of celebrities, and that best of American mixes, the possibility of saving millions of lives while making millions of dollars. Illiterate adults, many of them illegal immigrants and other kinds of undesirables, have no industry support, spend little time in Beverly Hills with celebrities, have weak voting power, no money for organizing, and poor leadership. They were lucky the papers even noticed them. We may or may not ever see a payoff from stem cell research, but that’s where the action is, and with the blessing of liberals. This is not a proud moment for us.


Readers respond

I enjoyed reading Dan Callahan’s interesting discussion of the liberal fetish for embryonic stem cells. Dan finds literacy programs a more worthy social priority than merely “promising” but hugely expensive research into the medical applications of stem cells. I think Dan misses something else that can be said on behalf of this research. While those who emphasize the possible medical applications of embryonic stem cell research think of it as applied science, it can also be viewed as basic science. Every part of a human body is assembled from parts that were once stem cells. Determining the conditions required to turn stem cells into specific tissue types will tell us a lot about how humans are made – it may even tell us something about what it means to be human. We can compare the large sums of money spent on stem cell research with the huge sums consumed by space exploration, another necessarily expensive basic research program. It’s certainly up for debate in a liberal society how much money gets spent on basic science – a society that sends space rockets to Saturn’s moons when so many people can’t even read may seem obscene. But speaking as someone employed as an academic philosopher (and financially independent of pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies), I rather like the idea of the pursuit of knowledge as one of society’s priorities. Those who defend NASA’s billions sometimes point to the practical second-hand benefits of space exploration – even going so far as to fraudulently claim Velcro and Tang for NASA. They should instead insist that space research is really about answering fundamental questions about the makeup of the Universe and our place in it. Perhaps we should say that embryonic stem cell research is really about finding out how human beings are made. It might just possibly lead to cures for terrible diseases too.

– Nicholas Agar


I’ll start off by saying that I deeply respect Daniel Callahan’s body of work, and that What Price Better Health should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with contemporary problems in medicine. That being said, I think he paints with too broad a brush in his recent post “Liberals and their Ill-Liberal Policies,” and thus misses some important social structural dynamics around Proposition 71, and human stem cell research in the United States generally. More importantly, Professor Callahan trades on a political distinction that is less than helpful for understanding the benefits and dangers of our current situation. Lets take a closer look at some of his hypotheses.

We’ll call the first hypothesis the “Blue State Hypothesis;” namely, Prop 71 passed because Californians wanted to give the bird to the Bush Administration. This seems plausible at first blush, but historically Californian voters’ record is much more uneven. For example in 1994, voters approved both Proposition 184 (three strikes initiative) and 187 (denial of basic social services to undocumented workers). In 1998, voters passed both Prop 227 (eliminated bi-lingual instruction in public schools), and Prop 4 (which banned steel-jaw leg hold traps used by fur trappers). In 2004, the same year Prop 71 passed, citizens voted down Prop 72, which would have expanded basic health care insurance coverage. Overall, this presents a confusing, if not schizophrenic, picture for a blue state. Clearly, voting outcomes do not map cleanly onto other variables, such as party affiliation or ideology, and certainly it is difficult from these outcomes to determine if the state has a single voting profile. The bottom line is that initiative voting patterns represent a complicated mix of factors that do not reduce to single issues, such as opposition to federal policies or people.

The second hypothesis (“The Liberal Bio-elite”) is that liberals now unquestioningly support biomedical research. During the Proposition 71 campaign, however, the leading public critics of the initiative were not the Catholic Church or pro-life organizations. They were left-leaning public interest organizations, such as the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) and the Feminist Pro-choice Alliance. CGS in particular were instrumental in raising a variety of issues, from open meetings to financial disclosures, both during the campaign and the early stage of implementation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The Christian Right has been completely absent from any of the public meetings of the CIRM, and has placed all their bets on stopping the Institute through the court system, which appears to have been an unsuccessful gambit.

The final hypothesis (“Follow the Money”) is somewhat muddled. Prop 71 was well on the way before Bob Klein (the “super-rich real estate tycoon” that Professor Callahan describes) was brought on board. The California legislature had already passed several stem cell-friendly pieces of legislation, led by Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento). In fact, Sen. Ortiz should be given the credit for coming up with the idea of using the initiative process to fund stem cell research on a state level. He also asserts that the initiative received “lots of money from the biotechnology industry.” This claim is difficult to evaluate, since Professor Callahan does not specify how much money constitutes “lots.” Biotech’s response to Prop 71 was mixed. While the southern California biotech trade organization (Biocom) quickly endorsed Prop 71, the northern California trade org (BayBio) was somewhat ambivalent, and held off endorsement until the end stages of the campaign. The largest donors to the Yes on 71 war chest, including Klein himself, were wealthy individuals that did not have direct ties to biotech. Certainly these individuals possess mutual funds or hold stock in biotech companies that could potentially benefit from Prop 71’s largesse. However, the potential payoffs from a stem cell therapeutic breakthrough are so distant and uncertain that belief in a short-term financial windfall from this sector is ludicrous. Indeed during the campaign and after, venture capital firms had mixed opinions about Prop 71 and stem cell research more generally. The history of biotech in California is a mixture of a few spectacular successes, and exponentially more dismal failures.

I will finish by saying that I am deeply sympathetic to Professor Callahan’s concerns about the use of public revenues for biomedical science at the expense of other priorities. However, to frame this situation in terms of a liberal/conservative distinction misses some of the most interesting and vexing issues that human stem cell research, and biotechnology in general, are provoking. Human stem cell research in particular has fractured older political constellations, and has helped to forge novel alliances. One does not have to look far; in California, progressive pro-choice feminists are in dialogue with conservative pro-life activists over such issues as the dilemmas and inequities of egg donation for nuclear transfer experiments, experiments that will be a priority of CIRM funding. Thus, it is critical that we expand our political imaginations beyond binary categories to help us think about the complexities and dangers that suffuse through our biotechnological present.

– Chris Ganchoff
University of California, San Francisco

Published on: May 11, 2006
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Health Care Reform & Policy

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