CGS colleague Charles Halpern's engaging new memoir, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom, makes a compelling case that the new human biotechnologies present us with "a cluster of issues that demands the highest level of attention and care - wisdom of a high order." The book recounts Charlie's work as a pioneer of public-interest law, founder of several innovative organizations, head of a progressive philanthropic foundation, and student of Buddhist spirituality.
In addition to all that, Charlie has over the past several years lent his considerable legal talents and political wisdom to the issues raised by human biotechnologies. He was a key participant in opposition mounted by CGS and other public-interest groups to the 2004 ballot measure that established the California stem cell agency, and in subsequent efforts to bring some modicum of oversight and accountability to the program. Charlie testified about its flaws to the California legislature, was quoted in dozens of media accounts in national and state newspapers, and submitted numerous letters and petitions to the agency's governing board, including one in February 2005 with Former US Secretary of Health Philip Lee. Many of his letters are included in a compilation of documents on the CGS website.
For more on Charlie and Making Waves, see www.charliehalpern.com.
Making Waves, which features forewords by Robert Reich and the Dalai Lama, includes an eloquent call to the urgent new challenges involving science, religion, justice and the human future:
In November 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71, authorizing the sale of $3 billion in state bonds to fund stem cell research…I concluded that the short-term medical benefits of stem cell research had been dramatically oversold. Moreover, I discovered that Prop. 71 had launched an unprecedented political experiment, in addition to its scientific experiments - billions of dollars of state money would be spend with virtually no oversight by the public, the governor, or the legislature. In the small print of the text, the normal checks and balances of democratic government were suspended…
I continued to track the developments with Prop. 71. As I have delved more deeply into the issues of biotechnical advance, I have become more persuaded that we are in the middle of the most serious ethical issues. We are at a point where no humans have ever been before, capable of taking over the evolution of the human species, designing the traits of babies, and altering the genetic package that children carry forward into life. Some enthusiasts say that we are on the threshold of a "transhuman" future, and they are anxious to push forward into the new era.
If ever there has been a cluster of issues that demands the highest level of attention and care - wisdom of a high order - this is it. Instead, it is being treated like a political football, with Republicans playing to the fundamentalists and many Democrats mindlessly championing the unfettered discretion of scientists to do whatever experiments interest them, regardless of their social consequences. The recent spate of books demonizing all religions, in the name of science and reason, seem to be calculated to heighten polarization and decrease the likelihood that wisdom will enter the discussion. It would be a tragedy if the voices of wisdom aren't heard on these matters.