Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Bai ’16: Stem cells and the political left

As far as bioengineering goes, stem cells and the surrounding moral controversy have provoked a variety of particularly vehement media commentary. I suppose the conversation, thinly walking the bright line between technical scientific innovation and philosophical quandary, makes for an enigmatic hors d’oeuvre — even more so when morality is involved. Everyone has an opinion.

There is an aphorism some philosophers toss around: “You can swing your fist freely till it hits another man’s nose.” In less archaic terms, the truism promotes individual autonomy until this autonomy infringes upon another’s human rights. In less convoluted terms, you can do what you want as long as no one else is hurt. Regarding stem cells and those who promote research of stem cells, that nose just seems a bit further away. Or the arms are a bit shorter. Regardless, the fist has a larger diameter to swing voraciously.

While it seems obtrusive to interrupt such theoretical thoughts with empirical ones, pragmatics and research are quite the pals. That aforementioned diameter tends to be an elastic one, contingent upon the mathematics of fiscal funding and politics of a given area. As a Brown undergrad, I’d like to think Rhode Island’s tendency to vote socially liberally has some hopeful implications for stem cells and their potentially monumental role in future health benefits. If Rhode Island were to meet this topic at the right junctures of funding and politics, what significance would it have?

In the endeavor to answer this seemingly large, general question, we should first examine the history of stem cell research policy in America. Second, we should analyze California, a state that has gained both influence and momentum in this field of study as of late.

Stem cell research has long been a moral quandary. Controversy mostly centers on embryonic stem cells and their extraction from in vitro fertilization. While IVF is commonly known as a method to treat infertility, it is also an accessible, effective means to study the embryonic genesis of human development. Stem cell lines are created by utilizing donor embryos or embryos that would have alternatively been discarded by IVF clinics.

Without descending into an entire discussion of “where life begins,” it’s enough to know that most stem cell research dissidents first criticize the usage of embryos and hold the process in which the embryos are obtained as a secondary issue.

As research can neither start nor continue in the absence of money, this debate has become an increasingly legal one.

The federal government ended this argument with a wildly unpopular vote to allocate money, though conservatively, to stem cell research laboratories. As political compromises result in little appeasement, this funding law also proved dissatisfactory. Social conservatives protested stem cells’ embryonic genesis. Researchers were limited to about 20 embryonic cell lines, hardly enough to further the research’s utilitarian health goals.

While the segregation between state and federal government has sometimes provided for unsavory historical moments, a la Southern secession, it has given stem cell researchers a hope for liberty. Since states are given the power to tax their own citizens and discretion in the use of funds gained through these taxes, they can also choose to fund specific types of research.

A decade ago, a group of Californians who believed deeply in the potential health benefits of advances in stem cell research drafted a ballot initiative for the establishment of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Proposition 71 ultimately passed. Since 2006, CIRM has distributed $1.3 billion to build facilities, fund laboratory research and create technology with the promise of long-term health care benefits.

California universities and institutions have experienced a colossal increase in academic and financial capital. Extensive state funding for stem cell research has not only attracted elite academics to the state, but also helped the state economy. CIRM’s ability to leverage resources nearly doubles the return on the state government’s original investments.

Though it is still early to notice public health outcomes, many labs funded by CIRM have entered translational stages. These stages exist as the bridge between research and drug development. With the aid of stem cells, many lab researchers have taken steps in creating therapies for incurable diseases. Extra funding has also allowed study into embryonic alternatives and a possible escape from moral controversy. Humans contain induced pluripotent cells in their bodies that scientists can engineer to differentiate. The unique ability of these cells to form into other cellular types makes them a viable alternative to their embryonic counterparts.

Earlier, I described the moral and fiscal obstacles associated with stem cell research. California has been able to surpass both due to Proposition 71 and its liberal citizenry. Since the national passage of an initiative such as Proposition 71 would prove difficult in a large, partisan nation like the United States, state governments should be incentivized to act.

More importantly, California’s establishment of CIRM is a model example of constitutional democracy. While the population doesn’t have much voice in civil taxation, California citizens were able to exert influence as an aggregate. The resulting establishment now wields billions of state tax dollars in the deserving pursuit of understanding disease and changing the prognosis of what is presently incurable.

This should motivate students and academics all across the United States. This should create hope for stem cell researchers working in institutions of higher education, especially those in more liberally inclined states.

I am curious whether Rhode Island’s liberal tendencies can allow it to become California’s eastern counterpart. How will Rhode Island’s more politically moderate government respond to the stem cell conversation? Brown engages in fascinating tissue engineering and stem cell research. How would these labs advance with CIRM-like funding?

As a summer analyst for CIRM, I was able to organize data, figure cost-benefit heuristics and draw some conclusions. I found that short-term benefits were abundant and long-term benefits look invaluable.

There are many aspects to review when translating the recent California move to Rhode Island. But this expensive, morally polarizing conversation may be worth considering.


Diana Bai ’16 may be reached at


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.