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.