The politics of the stem cell debate
Published: Aug 15, 2013
If one were to conduct a word association exercise or produce a word cloud on the stem cell debate, the following phrases may feature prominently: health care, Peter Nygard, money-making scheme, medical research, political donations, opposition walkout, and Minnis named by speaker.
Most Bahamians seem thoroughly confused by the debate, including, arguably, many moderate to high information voters.
Politics in the best and broadest sense attends debate on complex matters such as stem cell research. This is as it should be as both science and politics involve strongly held values and highly charged questions of life and death.
When a church or other interested parties press their views on matters such as abortion, the death penalty, economic justice or others, they are engaging in political dialogue and debate, even if it is nonpartisan in nature.
The issue is not that the stem cell bill was political in nature especially as it wended through the legislative process. The broader issue is what was lacking in the political process, and how political theater overwhelmed important aspects of the debate. And missing, was a richer, deeper, broader discussion of an array of bioethical questions.
Especially with complex issues, political leaders need to articulate a clear, compelling and reasonably simple message for the public. Bill Clinton is a master at delivering complex ideas in understandable terms. Barack Obama often faltered in effectively communicating his key ideas of health care reform.
Despite the tumbles, fumbles and bumbles triggered by his penchant for ad libbing, such as in the gambling referendum roller-coaster, Prime Minister Perry Christie was at it again at a 40th anniversary independence event honoring young Bahamians.
In using the event to pay glowing tribute to Peter Nygard while simultaneously pressing the government’s stem cell legislation Christie made the controversial figure a cause célèbre in the stem cell debate.
The political optics worsened as a video went viral showing the maned and wizened septuagenarian injecting himself in the stomach followed by his gasp of pleasure as a group of younger athletes looked on with, shall we say: curiosity.
With the eccentric Nygard as a face of the debate, the government lost control of the debate. There were questions about Nygard’s financial contributions to the PLP, as well as his and the government’s motivations for the stem cell legislation.
Many were left uneasy that the government’s message on stem cell research seemed driven overwhelmingly by profits and money, with considerably less regard for human well-being. The Nassau Guardian editorialized last week: “In fact, the entire discussion in the public domain by both the government and interested physicians has centered solely on the lucrative ‘money’ to be made by providing stem cell treatments to high-risk patients which have not been adequately tested for safety and effectiveness. Not a word has been mentioned about the well-being of the patient. Such emphasis on financial gain rather than patient welfare has not gone unnoticed.”
As the debate unfolded Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis attacked the government as beholden to Nygard. He questioned whether the country is able and ready to effectively regulate stem cell research.
At the outset the opposition appeared divided, with Minnis taking a particular stance, while a number of his colleagues articulated a different position. This left the FNM open to the charge of lacking coherence and unity on the legislation.
Meanwhile, Minnis’ remarks, which the government deemed as impugning the integrity of Christie, put the government further on the defensive.
In the ensuing brouhaha the administration was forced to postpone a final vote in the lower chamber and Minnis scored some political points as he refused to withdraw his remarks.
The naming affair has proven to be a curious type of theater with unexpected twists and turns, revealing the character of some of the players.
House Speaker Dr. Kendal Major has proven to be not only highly partisan, but also confused and incompetent at various junctures.
The naming process and walkout by the opposition united the FNM’s House caucus, with Minnis and his deputy Long Island MP Loretta Butler-Turner in one accord in standing up to the government.
While Minnis has gained some political points, many, including more independent voters are not satisfied that he has backed up his remarks relative of the relationship between Christie and Nygard. For her part, Butler-Turner once again demonstrated her toughness and leadership qualities.
Though Minnis was unable to get a sizeable number of party supporters to gather at the House of Assembly earlier, after the House walkout several hundred FNMs gathered at the party’s headquarters. It was the kind of rallying point and tonic a dispirited party needed.
Central and South Abaco MP Edison Key proved to be something of a spoiler. No matter his position on the legislation, in the interest of party spirit and loyalty he should have walked out with his colleagues; which is not to say that the FNM should have engaged in a boycott.
The FNM’s boycott is a mistake. It has left the government with free reign in the House. The opposition’s voice was needed to address significant questions on the legislation and on the country being used as a research center.
As the debate comes to an end, the FNM has rallied some core supporters, and the PLP is left that much more tarnished by having Nygard so closely associated with the stem cell debate.
Yet, for most, the stem cell debate was something of a yawn, especially during the dog days of summer when Bahamians are heading to the beach or on vacation.
Still, there remain significant issues which may haunt the country if they are not addressed, some of which were posed by this journal in its editorial, “Gambling on human life”.
“While the regulations are admirable, who in The Bahamas is qualified to monitor these adult stem cell centers? Without an international monitoring agency, how will The Bahamas enforce the ban on the use of embryonic stem cells?
“And why are we courting for-profit patient treatment centers with no affiliation with recognized research universities? Surely, university partnerships would enhance the legitimacy of offshore medical facilities. Research endeavors require millions of dollars and subsequent publication in a reputable medical journal to prove legitimate results versus flawed or purposely skewed results.”
The government will get its legislation passed. The opposition has scored some political points. But beyond this are complex questions of bioethics in terms of the medical and economic aspects of stem cell research, which will reignite the debate in the years to come.