Progressives can’t—and shouldn’t—remove politics and values from science.
For many progressives and liberals, President Barack Obama’s March 9 announcement on stem-cell research affirmed the now-conventional wisdom that virtue lies in protecting science from the interference of politics. Fulfilling a campaign promise, the president repealed his predecessor’s stem-cell funding restrictions and pledged to ensure that “scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda–and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”
Scientists and stem-cell research advocates celebrated. The president of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation said he was thrilled that the new Obama policy will “remove politics from science.” A vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation lauded the commitment to “keep politics out of science.” John Kessler, director of the Northwestern University Stem Cell Institute, recalled Bush’s funding limit and labeled it a “really, really unwelcome intrusion of politics into science.”
The policy is certainly a victory for progressives. But the assumptions embedded in its reception deserve close examination. Embedded assumption number one is that Bush’s restriction on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was part of a broad “anti-science” agenda. Assumption number two is that this policy constituted an illegitimate incursion of politics into science. The third assumption–and the one of greatest import as progressive politics tries to keep pace with scientific developments–is that we want to insulate science from moral values and political commitments.
Let’s look at each assumption in turn. Characterizing the Bush Administration’s general approach as “anti-science” is indeed accurate. Its policies were a pernicious brew of fundamentalist values and corporate interests; its record of suppressing and distorting research on climate change, endangered species, air pollution, and other matters was abysmal. But Bush’s specific argument against embryonic stem-cell research was not an instance of manipulating scientific findings or fashioning Orwellian misrepresentations. Rather, he clearly grounded his policy in the moral objection to destroying human embryos: He limited federal funding to existing cell lines on the grounds that “the life and death decision [for those embryos] has already been made.” This may be ideology, but “ideology” is often what we call political values with which we disagree.
The third assumption, though, is the most potentially troubling over the long term. It is not “anti-science” or illegitimate to bring political values to bear on science policy–even when it’s Bush or his religious supporters doing it. To suppress scientific evidence or distort research findings because they are politically inconvenient, to disregard expert advice and relevant technical information–these practices are anti-science, and the Bush Administration made a habit of them. But to consider social and ethical values in the course of crafting policy is not only appropriate, but necessary. And disagreement about social and ethical values, or about how to apply them, is a necessary aspect of democratic political contestation.
Progressives were correct both to attack the Bush Administration’s “anti-science” conduct and to oppose the fundamentalist right’s influence on its science policy decisions. But they took a wrong turn when they blurred the two. Intense animus against religious conservatives’ bioethical beliefs, coupled with extreme enthusiasm about stem-cell research, led many progressives toward positions that implicitly or explicitly ruled social values out of order in science policy.
Carried to an extreme, which it sometimes was, this meant that some progressives came to discount the importance of regulation and oversight of scientific practice and applications; overlooked conflicts of interest and corporate encroachments in science-related activities; and shortchanged the need for broad public discussion of the social and moral implications of science policy. Surely this is the wrong approach to a progressive politics of science.
Our job, now that we’re not fighting a rearguard action every day, is to determine the appropriate relationship between science and politics, and between science and state. The task is particularly urgent with regard to fast-evolving human biotechnologies: cloning for research and reproduction; sex selection and “designer babies”; race-specific drugs; “personalized genomics”; and markets in kidneys, eggs, and wombs. These emerging or proposed applications have been catapulted into public awareness by technical and commercial developments over the past decade, and can be referred to as “biopolitics.”
The birth of this kind of biopolitics was unfortunately timed. It coincided with the partisan polarization of recent years, which drowned out thoughtful deliberation about anything with a connection to the politics of reproduction, including many human biotechnologies. But genetic and reproductive biotechnologies raise political challenges that go beyond embryos. They pose questions about social justice and the common good, about democratic accountability and sensible regulation. Some of them present social predicaments that are unprecedented in human experience.
These are the questions we must ponder: How will human biotechnologies reshape our sense of ourselves, our relationships, the shape and feel of the world we occupy together? Who will profit, who will lose, and who will survive in the biotech age? Celebrity scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies? Attractive college students whose eggs are in demand? Poor villagers in developing countries who sell their kidneys or rent their wombs? People with Down syndrome? Techno-utopian ideologues who think human improvement depends on biological “enhancements” rather than social change? What rules will govern human biotech practices, and who will enforce them?
There are no easy answers. While genetic, reproductive, and biomedical technologies hold great potential for scientific advances and medical improvements, they could also lead to developments that would deepen the divide between haves and have-nots and could even corrode our commitments to one another as members of a single human community. Grappling with these issues intelligently requires acknowledging the roles of social values and politics; it also requires assessing how we’ve done so far–and unfortunately, some recent approaches represent impediments to a progressive biopolitics shaped by values of social justice, inclusion, and democratic governance. Below are three examples.
The Stem-Cell Wars
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