Human Nature

Mortal Combat

The exploding politics of biotechnology.

By one o’clock Wednesday morning, Democrats had taken the lead in the U.S. Senate races in Virginia and Montana. Control of the Senate came down to Missouri, where Democrat Claire McCaskill trailed Jim Talent, the Republican incumbent, with three-quarters of the ballots counted. In a final surge, McCaskill took the race and the Senate. And with her came the political issue of the future: biotechnology.

Until now, elections have focused on three kinds of issues. During the Cold War, national security vied with economics. Cultural issues came third. Then Communism collapsed, and we crushed Iraq in the Gulf War. Military and foreign policy lost their urgency, and a recession dominated the 1992 presidential campaign. “It’s the economy, stupid,” argued strategists for the governor of Arkansas. So we put him in the White House.

As the economy improved, that issue, too, lost urgency. Cultural debates took over. Guns helped the GOP capture Congress in 1994. Conservatives developed two new wedge issues: gay marriage and partial-birth abortion. No piety seemed too small. A presidential campaign about V-chips and school uniforms was followed by an impeachment for covering up an affair. The governor of Texas stumbled through a debate on foreign policy but promised to uphold the honor of the presidency, which everyone understood to mean his pants.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the vacation from national security ended. President Bush declared a war on terror. Republicans won the 2002 elections by accusing Democrats, falsely, of opposing a department of homeland security. In 2004, they swift-boated John Kerry and skewered him for voting against war appropriations. This week, with Iraq in disarray and troop fatalities mounting, voters threw the GOP out. They didn’t care that unemployment had just hit a five-year low. When the question is your money or your life, life wins.

Which brings us to Missouri. There, the usual issues canceled each other out. On balance, people who worried about terrorism voted for Talent; voters who worried about Iraq voted for McCaskill. Those concerned about the economy backed McCaskill; those concerned about values backed Talent. But one more issue was in the mix this year: a ballot measure to prevent restrictions on embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research. McCaskill endorsed the measure, known as Amendment 2, and supported federal funding of the research. Talent opposed both.

Proponents of Amendment 2 framed it as a life-or-death issue, like war. They called themselves the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. All of their television ads ended with the words, “It could save the life of someone you love.” They argued that ESC research might help cure or treat a host of ills, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries, severe burns, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

Opponents assailed Amendment 2 as a threat to human dignity. They said it would “redefine human life,” protect “human cloning for research,” promote “creating human life in the laboratory,” and spawn “a mini-Gold Rush in human tissue,” with demand for “millions of human eggs.”

Both sides twisted the truth. ESC research hasn’t cured anything, and Amendment 2 doesn’t fund it. But each side’s warning was essentially true. If you block ESC research, you’re closing off what might be the quickest path to saving many lives. And if you promote the research, along with the embryonic cloning that makes it therapeutically useful, you’re seriously messing with the foundations of life. You’re creating artificial human entities. You’re turning eggs and embryos into medical supplies.

These two truths aren’t going away. The life-saving potential of biological research will only increase its political power. The baby boomers are turning 60. They’ll reach for any technology that offers hope of staving off illness and death. So will the generations behind them.

Meanwhile, the technology grows more complicated. Stem cells from leftover embryos are only the beginning. To cure people reliably, you have to move on to cloning. To avoid cloning, you have to devise alternatives, such as reprogramming adult cells, which might enable any cell in your body to become an embryo. To eradicate diseases with today’s technology, you’d have to screen embryos and flush the ones with bad genes. With tomorrow’s technology, you’ll be able to re-engineer them. Each of these advances saves life at the price of dissolving it. We’re taking ourselves apart.

We’re so not ready for this. But we can’t stop ourselves. So we try to simplify the oncoming technologies, treating them like issues we already know. On the right, that means equating ESC research with abortion. Last week, I got push-polled by opponents of Rep. Ben Cardin, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in Maryland. Cardin had voted for research “on unborn babies,” the computerized caller told me. Here I was, being lectured about humanity by a robot. But the victims of ESC research are microscopic, and the infants, arguably, are on the other side. As an ad for Amendment 2 put it, “Stem-cell research could save the lives of many babies.”

On the left, the instinct is to treat ESC research like health care. “Amendment 2 is about finding cures and saving lives—nothing more, and nothing less,” said an ad for the ballot measure. But in the stem-cell fight, the teams are all messed up. You’ve never seen conservatives so exercised about protecting women from “Big Biotech,” or liberals so in love with drug companies. From California to Michigan to Massachusetts, the most common argument for stem-cell subsidies, next to saving lives, is that they’ll attract high-tech business.

Amendment 2 narrowly passed. Three of every four people who supported it voted for McCaskill, helping Democrats take the Senate. But biotech politics didn’t start in Missouri, and it won’t end there. It was a weapon in the 2004 Kerry campaign and more than a dozen Senate, House, and gubernatorial races this year. With polls on their side, Democrats have declared ESC research one of their top six priorities for the new Congress. Republicans, scrambling for alternatives, are proposing new stem-cell derivation methods that tamper more ambitiously with the human recipe.

So hold on to your hats. A new kind of issue has arrived. It’s moral, it’s economic, and it’s life and death. Biotechnology is here to stay, even if humanity, as we know it, isn’t.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.