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Beyond Vaccine Politics to Biopolitics

Dr. Jonathan D. Moreno is the Editor-In-Chief of Science Progress. This is a repost of his op-ed in the Huffington Post.

The most intensely personal and revealing encounter at the Tea Party/CNN debate this week in Tampa was not about the state of the economy or jobs or immigration. It was about vaccinating girls to prevent cervical cancer. Even in an election cycle that is dominated by the economy, feelings about cultural issues continue to be the most raw, especially where the power of modern medical science seems to conflict with tradition values.

Welcome to the era of biopolitics.

Biopolitics refers to the ways that issues raised by biology enter the political process. The most longstanding of these issues in America is of course abortion. Then in the last ten years evolution re-entered the picture with the advent of “creation science,” a dubious tip-of-the-hat to science if ever there was one. That happened around the same time presidential candidates needed to take a position on embryonic stem cell research. A more recent addition to the biopolitical list is climate change, and more recent sill, vaccination of girls to prevent cervical cancer.

In my new book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, I discuss the simmering popular anxiety about the power of science, especially the implications of modern biology. Although many on the left share these concerns, cultural conservatives are especially troubled by the way that the ability to understand and manipulate life threatens traditional values and the social order. Like any political trope, the “pro-science/anti-science” theme should be read as a signal about how deeply certain politicians identify with those who worry about the values being transmitted to future generations. Those values have to do with the ways scientists might be able to control the very nature of humanity. The fundamental cultural divide between those who see science as a boon or as a threat has already appeared several times in the political season.

For example, a few weeks ago a fourth grader asked Texas Gov. Rick Perry how old the Earth is. In response, Perry told the student that “in Texas we teach both evolution and creationism in our public schools, because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Less widely noted, his mother reportedly asked the governor “why he doesn’t believe in science.” The media frenzy over the exchange then prompted former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, another Republican presidential hopeful, to say “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party–the anti-science party–we have a huge problem.” Huntsman repeated this line in the debate at the Ronald Reagan Library, though it undoubtedly contributes to the widespread view that he is a relative moderate in this group of candidates.

At the Reagan Library event Gov. Rick Perry was hammered about his executive order that approved a program to vaccinate girls against the virus that can cause cervical cancer, which cultural conservatives fear will entice them to be sexually active. The fact that Perry followed the medical advice of experts on public health provided him no shelter in this debate. Rep. Bachmann followed up by arguing that it’s wrong to impose vaccination on “innocent young girls” and their parents (though like all such regulation Perry’s program had a parental opt-out clause). A few weeks later at the Tea Party/CNN debate Bachmann hammered Perry on the issue, accusing him of “crony capitalism” in order to gain campaign contributions from the drug company, Merck. Underlying the emotions behind the vaccination issue is the fear that a combination of powerful forces — government, the pharmaceutical industry, and the science establishment — are conspiring to undermine traditional values.

At the Tea Party Forum in South Carolina, one of the panelists was Robby George, a popular Princeton University professor who is a leading conservative thinker. George served on President Bush’s bioethics council. George raised the question whether congress can reverse Roe v. Wade based on that part of the 14th amendment of the constitution that is generally known as the “equal protection” clause, which refers to “any person.”

The question whether fetuses or embryos are “persons” reaches into practices well beyond abortion, especially the stem cell controversy. While he was a member of President Bush’s bioethics council George engaged in a debate with another member, Harvard professor Michael Sandel, about embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, while he was a member of President Bush’s bioethics council, Sandel published a widely read piece in the New England Journal of Medicine on “Embryo Ethics.” Does respect for the human embryo rule out using it in research that might provide important medical advances? Sandel argued that it does not, that those who ground respect for the human embryo in the fact that all persons came from embryos commit a logical error. Embryos are not necessarily equivalent to persons any more than acorns are equivalent to oak trees. “Human life develops by degrees,” Sandel argued. In response, George, coauthored a paper in the conservative journal The New Atlantis in which he deprecated Sandel’s analogy. George wrote that Sandel used a false analogy because human beings have an intrinsic value that acorns and oak trees do not have.

Beyond the old and familiar biopolitics of abortion, the new biopolitics results from the potential of experimental biology for remarkable knowledge and control over the nature of human beings. At the same time, Americans face global competition for new products through biotechnology in this “biological century.” As the U.S. economy continues in the doldrums, this potential source of new wealth poses an interesting challenge for politicians who identify themselves as cultural conservatives.

After the economy, biopolitics might just be the item that most challenges the 2012 candidates’ policy prescriptions.

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