06/13/2005 05:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moving the Moral Values Debate Out of the Bedroom and Into the Boardroom

At a speech in Iowa this weekend, Howard Dean made the point that Democrats "are not going to be afraid to talk about moral values. In fact, if you match our moral values against their moral values, we win."

Maybe. Depends on what your definition of "moral values" is, Doc...

The key is making sure that the moral values debate doesn’t remain stuck in the GOP's very narrow frame of gay marriage and the number of times Ian McShane says "cocksucker" on Deadwood (which, by the way, is a helluva lot!).

If the Dems want a moral values issue they can call their own, they need look no farther than the immoral behavior of giant drug companies -- and the despicable way that the Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to make it easier for Big Pharma to sacrifice the health of the public on the altar of profits.

For starters, just look at the sweetheart provisions in the new Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that will give drug companies all kinds of patent protections in Central America while making it harder for people there to get low cost generic versions of life-saving drugs. A great many of the 275,000 Central Americans infected with HIV, for instance, will no longer be able to afford treatment. In Guatemala, AIDS patients currently pay only $216 per year for the generic version of the antiretroviral cocktail Combivir, instead of the $4,818 the name brand costs. In Costa Rica, if forced to forgo generic drugs, the country will only be able to treat 18% of the AIDS patients [pdf] currently being cared for. Rep. Henry Waxman will be holding hearings on the CAFTA giveaways tomorrow.

Hey, haven’t we seen this horror movie before? Didn’t the same thing happen in Africa where thousands died as the drug companies did everything in their power (including suing the South African government) to keep low-cost generic drugs from the millions dying of AIDS. Do we really need a sequel to that sick and depraved tale?

The problem is that the drug industry has far too many friends in high places, including Bill Frist who is doing its dirty work in a particularly sleazy way. He has slipped into the "Protecting America in the War on Terror Act" a provision that is nothing more than a giant wet kiss below the belt to Big Pharma. Among other outrages, it provides punitive damage protection to any and all drugs approved by the FDA, caps pain and suffering damages at $250,000, and forbids states from banning Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in childhood vaccines that has been linked to the massive increase in autism. It also moves a collection of Thimerosal lawsuits filed by the parents of autistic kids from state to federal court -- and significantly raises the burden of proof in these cases.

To his credit, this bill shows that Dr. Frist is no quitter when it comes to doing the bidding of drug companies like Eli Lilly (the creator of Thimerosal), which donated $226,000 to Frist’s 2002 campaign: he’s been trying to shove legislation protecting Lilly and others from Thimerosal lawsuits down the throats of the public since 2002, when he and Dick Armey slipped a similar provision into the Homeland Security Act. Public outrage led to its repeal -- so Frist is try, try, trying again. What perseverance!

President Bush has also gotten into the act. During the 2004 campaign he promised to "support the removal of Thimerosal from vaccines" but then had his minions in HHS give a group of parents with autistic kids the cold shoulder at a meeting in May.

So as I wrote back in November, when the Vioxx story broke:

If the Democratic Party is serious about reclaiming the moral-values high ground, it needs to stop trying to figure out how to triangulate on gay marriage and take a long, hard look in the medicine-chest mirror. Then open it up, let fly with the proper moral outrage, and start cleaning out the mess that lies inside. It’s time for Democrats to become the real pro-life party.