WASHINGTON – The hottest week in recent American history coincided with the heating up of political debates over biotechnology and revealed important and potentially long-lasting fault lines in American politics.
On Tuesday, just a few weeks after Congress voted to ban human cloning, fertility experts, scientists and members of a cult called the Raelians gathered at a National Academy of Sciences hearing in Washington to promote efforts to clone the first human being. And the week ended with a presidential decision approving federal funding for existing embryonic stem cell lines.
Now some observers are saying that biotechnology issues are prompting emerging political alliances that reach across conventional ideological divisions and could transform the political landscape.
On one side there is "an emerging coalition," made up of segments of both the right and the left of the political spectrum, said Adam Wolfson, the editor of the conservative opinion journal The Public Interest, at a conference on the politics of biotechnology this week. That coalition is congealing around its opposition to the scope and speed of rapid biotechnological changes and developments.
Conservative opposition to cloning and embryonic stem cell research is generally steeped in moral concerns about the sanctity and dignity of human life. But many on the right are now being joined by elements on the far left of the political spectrum who have long harbored a strong skepticism toward biotechnology and a suspicion of corporate-sponsored scientific research.
Wolfson said the emergence of this coalition is "an important development" and could change the political landscape as biotechnology and genetic engineering become more significant in American political life.
Virginia Postrel, the editor-at-large of Reason Magazine and the author of the book The Future and its Enemies, agreed. She said she sees traditional conservatives teaming up with the "green Naderite left" whom she characterized as harboring a "suspicion of markets," while also holding views that are anathema to conservatives, such as favoring abortion rights and strong environmental regulations.
On the other side is a coalition of many liberal Democrats and some Republicans. Despite their differences, they are united in a desire to see scientific research proceed largely uninhibited.
These emerging camps were on display on July 31 when a bill sponsored by Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., banning human cloning passed the House by a 265 to 162 vote. An alternative bill sponsored by Rep. James Greenwood, R-Penn., that would have allowed the creation of human embryos for experimentation, was defeated 178-249.
Most Democrats voted against the ban on cloning, and a majority of the votes in favor of the Greenwood alternative bill came from Democrats. "A vote for Greenwood expressed a sense for liberals that, in the end, cloning won’t be that bad," said Wolfson.
The politics of biotech are thus making for strange bedfellows. In the House of Representatives, for example, conservative Republican Reps. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey of Texas were joined by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Ver., who is a proud socialist, and Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., a committed liberal, in opposition to the cloning and embryonic measures.
According to Postrel, those opposed to the cloning ban and other significant restrictions on biotechnology are best described as "classical liberals" on these issues in that they believe in "the old traditional impulse for free inquiry and scientific research that would lead to a betterment in human life."
These classical liberals, she says, are found in both political parties and reject the "technocratic impulse to regulate, control, and ban." The overwhelming majority of House Democrats were joined by 19 Republicans, mostly from the northeast, in opposition to the ban. The entire Connecticut delegation — evenly split between three Republicans and three Democrats — voted against the cloning ban.
Erin Williams, a professor of ethics and law at George Mason University's School of Computation, says the questions and blurring of the political lines are similar to the societal discourse surrounding the first test-tube baby in 1978.
"I think it will take up a lot of political time for a while," she said. "The society is taking notice and prompting discussions to take place and that’s very healthy."
Issues of biotechnology "seem to be crossing party lines and to some extent, philosophical lines," noted Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory policy studies for the libertarian Cato Institute. "I think what this says is in our society, with rapidly advancing technological capacity, certainly in biology as well as in other areas, it is going to be a challenge to apply basic principles of liberty to the new reality."