Optimist's club: Bailey tackles touchy subjects

If you're like most people, you probably avoid talking about politics and religion. Well, Charlottesville journalist Ron Bailey isn't most people. In fact, he relishes biotechnology debates– and they usually involve both religion and politics.

As the science correspondent for Reason magazine, Bailey often finds himself extolling the merits of cloning, euthanasia, and harvesting stem cells. And in his most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, he addresses pretty much every touchy subject in the field.

 The book, released in July, attacks both the Academy and the Administration. Bailey goes after prominent Boston University bioethicist George Annas for his "precautionary principle" as well as Dr. Leon Kass, the former head of the President's Council on bioethics.

"The Bush administration doesn't much care for me," says Bailey.

What exactly is it about the man that compels him to endorse such unpopular subjects?

"I'm a technological optimist," says Bailey, "and a lot of people– both left-wingers and right– focus only on the bad possibilities of science. We create these scary monsters that never come true."

Bailey, 51, who works from his home downtown, says he's not merely trying to vex his critics, although you wouldn't know it by his book titles. One is called Ecoscam; another mentions "false prophets" in its title. His latest book riffs off a famous nuclear Armageddon-flirting film with this as its original subtitle: Why You Should Relax and Enjoy The Brave New World of Immortality, Stem Cells, and Designer Babies.

 "His goal is to bring these issues to public debate," says University of Virginia medical researcher Jonathan Moreno, "and he does that very well."

For instance: "With regard to the stem cell debate," Bailey says, "the Catholic Church argues that embryos are people. But let's take a look at how nature treats embryos: 80 percent of naturally conceived embryos die. My question to religious people is this: Are 80 percent of the souls in heaven embryos?"

Although his arguments can shock, it's not as if no one sides with Bailey.

"Typically, the scientists and researchers agree with me," he says. "It's the bioethicists and policy-makers who disagree."

"Bailey is libertarian," says Moreno, "so he doesn't believe that the government should impose moral values on science. I'm very sympathetic to that belief."

And despite the constant challenges of those who are less understanding, "my work's a lot of fun," Bailey says. "I might even have another book idea. We'll see."


A reading from Liberation Biology is scheduled for December 1 at 5:30pm at New Dominion Bookstore.