Issue #13, Summer 2009

Political Science

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 Fulfilling a campaign promise, the president repealed his predecessor’s stem-cell funding restrictions and pledged to ensure that “scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda–and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

Much that was misguided about the progressive politics of science during the Bush era began as a reflexive response: If the Bush Administration and its religious base were against something, we were for it. This posture was particularly evident in the stem-cell wars. Progressives came to accept the social conservatives’ framing of the controversy as one completely defined by differences about the moral status of human embryos, and they paid little attention to an array of other ethical and social concerns that the stem-cell endeavor raises. Too often, they endorsed unrealistic predictions about stem-cell breakthroughs and cures, overlooked conflicts of interest among stem-cell researchers and commercial biotech firms, and excused lapses in basic oversight of lavishly funded state stem-cell programs. And many progressives failed to notice the particularly troubling concerns raised by cloning-based stem-cell research: the large numbers of women’s eggs it requires and the significant health risks posed by their collection; the unlikelihood that if it ever produced patient-specific treatments they would be affordable; and the need for a federal prohibition on reproductive cloning to minimize the chances of rogue efforts to produce cloned humans.

The most enthusiastic advocates were guilty of boundless hyperbole. Exaggerated claims about the likelihood and imminence of stem-cell cures were much in evidence during 2004, both in the presidential campaign and in the California ballot initiative that provided $3 billion in state money for stem-cell research. The campaign for that measure adopted the tagline “Countdown to Cures.” It blanketed the state with TV ads featuring people suffering from diabetes, Parkinson’s, and other diseases, and scientists in white coats–their university appointments prominent, their commercial affiliations unmentioned–suggesting they’d be cured by Christmas.

On the national scene, vice presidential candidate John Edwards told a crowd in October 2004 that embryonic stem-cell research would allow people like Christopher Reeve to “get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” In a speech at the Democratic convention, Ron Reagan Jr. predicted that cloning-based stem-cell research could produce for each of us a “personal biological repair kit.” The rhetoric grew so heated that Princeton University President and geneticist Shirley Tilghman, a supporter of such research, warned that “some of the public pronouncements in the field of stem-cell research come close to over-promising at best and delusional fantasizing at worst.”

Unfortunately, statements like Reagan’s and Edwards’s came not just from politicians and campaign consultants but also from scientists and officials at disease-advocacy organizations. By the normal conventions of scientific conduct, such claims would be considered irresponsible at best. But this was war. And in war, you’re either friend or foe, and you fight by any means necessary. Writing after Obama’s stem-cell announcement, Slate’s William Saletan compared stem-cell advocates’ approach to Karl Rove’s mode of attacking critics of torture. For proponents of embryo research, Saletan wrote, “[t]he war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you’re with science, or you’re against it.”

Enthusiasm for stem-cell research led some beyond over-the-top rhetoric toward dismissal of basic tenets of accountability and public oversight. Consider the California case. The 2004 ballot initiative established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to disperse the billions of dedicated public dollars. Though CIRM is nominally a public agency, the initiative mandated that its 29-member governing board be dominated by representatives of California’s largest research institutions, biotech companies, and disease-advocacy organizations. This provision built institutional conflicts of interest into the structure of the program–and indeed, as David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report points out, 18 institutions with representatives on the board have now received portions of $552 million in grants.

The problems didn’t end there. The initiative effectively insulated CIRM from oversight by the state legislature and exempted it from California sunshine laws about open meetings. Another provision seemed to put the activities funded by the new agency above state law altogether:

[T]he Institute will develop its own scientific and medical standards to carry out the specific controls and intent of the Act, notwithstanding…any other current or future state laws or regulations dealing with the study and research of pluripotent stem cells and/or progenitor cells [emphasis added].

Given that some California legislators opposed embryonic stem-cell research, proponents understandably wanted safeguards and defended the initiative’s exemptions on that basis. It’s also understandable when the companies and principals in a field try to minimize regulation and oversight. But it was notable when progressive organizations and leaders that typically champion government transparency and accountability either failed to notice the initiative’s startling exemptions or dismissed concerns about them, and wound up endorsing a law that codified prohibitions on public oversight.

The Pursuit of the Perfect Baby

Progressives are more likely than Americans of most other political sensibilities to emphasize the public interest, social solidarity, and an active role for government in promoting them. But during the late-’90s tech boom and into the Bush years, some progressives tilted too far toward individual rights and a minimalist notion of government, especially in matters connected to reproduction. And progressives were at least as inclined as other Americans toward the consumer-oriented ethos of “self-improvement”–a notion that sometimes extended to the way we have children, and even to the kind of children we have.

This tendency was in evidence at a 1998 conference called “Engineering the Human Germline,” which drew 1,000 people to hear influential scientists promote the development of genetic and reproductive technologies that would allow altering the traits of future children and generations. This procedure, termed “inheritable genetic modification” or “germline engineering” in scholarly literature and “designer babies” in the popular media, has been a topic of speculation for decades. Both skeptics and proponents agree it would likely be profoundly consequential, setting in motion Gattaca-like social and market dynamics that could exacerbate, and create new forms of, social disparities and discrimination.

Organizers of the UCLA event, which was covered on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, acknowledged that one of its goals was to make inheritable genetic modification “acceptable” to the public, and that a key component of their strategy was to avoid regulation. Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver–who in his 1997 book, Remaking Eden, predicted the emergence of a genetic elite that he termed the “GenRich” (he called the nonengineered 90 percent “Naturals”)–noted approvingly that “this country is unique in that there are no federal regulations of [in-vitro fertilization] clinics,” adding, “I don’t see why you need extra regulations for germ-line engineering.” Nobel Laureate and DNA pioneer James Watson–who in 2007 was disgraced after making racist comments in a newspaper interview–told the conference, “I think our hope is to stay away from regulations and laws whenever possible.”

Given that these scientists and futurists were proposing genetic interventions that they anticipated would biologically alter the human species and possibly introduce a new social system of genetic castes, their antipathy to “regulations and laws” makes perfect sense. And in fact, a decade after these remarks, the United States remains a global outlier on inheritable genetic modification: Unlike almost four dozen countries on every continent, it has no federal policies to rule out the designer-baby future that so entices Watson, Silver, and others of their ilk.

The technologies themselves have progressed. Scientists can produce genetically modified animals: goats that lactate spider silk, mice that run mazes faster and better than their non-engineered counterparts, rabbits and monkeys that glow in the dark because of a jellyfish gene in every one of their cells. These kinds of inheritable genetic modifications are still imprecise enough that trying to replicate them in human beings would violate international prohibitions on human experimentation. But it’s not too soon to address them in our thinking and in our laws.

The United States also remains an outlier on regulation of assisted reproduction. Progressives rightly support reproductive technologies to treat infertility and to give gays and lesbians options for forming families. But few have criticized the operation of a fertility industry that informed observers call a “wild West.” In a recent issue of Nature, for example, former chair of Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) Ruth Deech asserted that in “the United States, assisted reproduction is nearly an unregulated black market, guided by toothless ‘rules’ from non-regulatory bodies.”

Deech made these comments well before two recent scandals that brought massive critical attention to the U.S. baby business: the birth of IVF octuplets–which bequeathed to our language the inelegant neologism “Octomom”–as well as the advertisement by a Los Angeles fertility clinic of a program to screen embryos, not just for sex, but also hair, eye, and skin color.

Issue #13, Summer 2009
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Mike P:

Unfortunately the Bush Administration's disdain for science was not limited to bioethical issues. It also extended to environmental issues, where decisions about listing endangered species, to name only one example, were based on whether or not they would interfere with energy exploration. Energy won out every time, despite the fact that the Endangered Species Act doesn't allow for that kind of trade-off.

Sure, it's important to realize that there may be moral issues involved, but even more often, there were purely economic issues, too.

Jun 15, 2009, 1:52 PM

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