October 13th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Wishy-Washy Endorsement of MO Amendment 2

On November 7th, Missourians will decide whether or not to add an amendment to the state constitution called the Stem Cell Initiative. You can find both the ballot language and the full text of the amendment on the Missouri secretary of state's web page, but the key phrases are that the amendment requires the state government to "allow Missouri researchers to conduct any [stem cell] research, permitted under federal law" and "prohibit state or local governments from preventing or discouraging lawful stem cell research, therapies and cures."

I got a phone call from my friend alienne, I think it was a couple of weeks ago, asking me what in the heck is Amendment 2, and why do the anti-2 billboards look like something from some totally paranoid kook? And they do, that's not just her (and my) politics talking. You never saw such ugly, unreadable, and hysterical billboards in your entire life. The signs were paid for by a group called the Missouri Roundtable for Life, and Amendment 2 gives them the (literally) screaming heebie-jeebies. They're convinced that it's a stealth attack on the anti-abortion movement, a covert conspiracy to legalize human cloning, and all kinds of awful things. And in true paranoid fashion, it never occurs to them not to put all of the awful things on the same billboard, in a cheap-looking font, in black and red on plain white, like some sloppily photocopied rant some homeless guy would hand you on the street. Since when, she asked (and you might ask) did the "Right to Lifers" start putting out such stupid-looking, self-discrediting, garbage for advertising? Answer: since the rest of the Republican Party stabbed them in the back.

The politics of this is that the real genius of the Reagan Revolution was that it solved more than a plain electoral problem for the Republicans. It did that, too, but it solved a tactical and technical problem for them, too. The Democratic Party stands for things that affect the lives of tens, hundreds, of millions of people directly and in ways that they can see. The Democratic Party also has roots in a lot of volunteer groups, some of them going back well over a hundred years. On the other hand, the Republican Party is, and always has been, primarily the party of and for the benefit of the wealthiest 1% to 2% of the country. Which means that electoral competitions have always been basically a competition to see which could more influence the voters, a competition between the Democratic Party's vast volunteer base and the Republican Party's vast advertising budget. Since the party of Ayn Rand's philosophy believes that nobody should ever do anything without getting paid for it, where on Earth were they ever going to get volunteers? Convincing the churches that Jesus would want them to vote for the party that hates the poor and adds burdens to the already oppressed, by twisting the gospel to make it look like Jesus's number one and two political issues if he were alive today would be abortion and gay rights, solved that problem by giving the Republican Party its first ever reliable source of highly motivated volunteers. And ever since then, the Religious Right has been trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to get the Republican Party to pay them more than lip service, to actually act as if they couldn't win elections without enthusiastic support from the Religious Right. And even before Mark Foley, even before ex-Bush-staffer David Kuo's new bestseller that accuses the Republican leadership of holding the Religious Right in thinly disguised contempt, they were threatening to not merely stay home one of these election years, but to split off their own party. And, well, these billboards show why that won't work. Yes, the Republican Party needs the Religious Right for its volunteers, but without the Republican Party's money and its expertise at running campaigns, the Religious Right routinely comes off looking like a bunch of paranoids, kooks, and total morons.

Aside from the politics of Amendment 2, though, it's hard for me to take the subject seriously, and I'll tell you why. First of all, as I've said before, the country-club Republicans are smoking crack if they think that St. Louis can be turned into anything resembling Silicon Valley; we have neither the friendly pleasant climate, nor the defense-contractor-fed economy, nor the pool of entrepreneurial investors, nor the social and cultural climate, nor the atmosphere of tolerance for diversity that it would take to persuade the world's best biotech students to want to do their studying here and then be so in love with the place that rather than go elsewhere where the real money is, then want to stay here and run their own garage/minimal office scientific labs and businesses. It's just never going to happen. The country-club Republicans stabbed their Religious Right allies in the back in pursuit of a hopeless pipe dream. But secondly, and even more importantly, I can't take this debate too seriously because stem cell research is probably going to go down in history as no smarter than phlogiston chemistry. The fact is that we just plain don't know how stem cells decide what type of cells to differentiate into, either during embryonic development or when (as current theory goes) dispatched to the site of an injury by organs in the adult body. Cell differentiation is a deep mystery right now, one that's got decades of research ahead of it if for no reason other than we're still lacking in even basic theory on the subject, so any talk of near-term miracle cures is at best hopelessly optimistic. This idea that we can just slice cells out of a pre-implantation embryo and inject them into an injury or illness location and have them miraculously bloom into the right kind of cells has been tested, and so far it's uniformly failed.

But the truth of the matter is that I really don't care what happens to a pre-implantation embryo. And thanks to every American couple's "sacred right" to spend tens of thousands of dollars on cutting edge "therapy" if that's what it takes for them to have "children of their own" (as an adoptee, I loathe that phrase) even though that research sticks us all, as a nation, with this thorny and politically-unresolvable ethical problem, we're almost literally buried in these utterly worthless fertilized human eggs. Every fertility clinic in the nation is running out of room to store them, and Bush's fantasy that somehow these millions of embryos are all some day going to get adopted, and all of the millions of more embryos that are being made all the time, is outright laughable. Let's face it, folks, we're going to throw those embryos away. So letting any scientist, or even any mad scientist, play around with this medical waste is just fine with me if that's what floats their boat. So sure, by all means, go ahead and vote for Amendment 2; I'm planning to. Or don't, for all that I care.
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