Something both modest and significant happened in New Jersey during elections last month.
New Jersey voters rejected an initiative that would have allowed the state to borrow $450 million to support embryonic stem cell research. The vote was particularly unexpected because New Jersey had been one of the first states to use taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research, and polls showed that voters in this liberal Democratic state continued to support such research.
Disappointed defenders of the initiative, including state Gov. John Corzine, who invested $150,000 of his considerable wealth in the losing cause, attributed the defeat to a case of pocketbook pique. New Jersey is saddled with an immense budget crisis and a $3 billion deficit, which hardly put voters in the frame of mind to fund experimental research with no track record for success.
Catholic and pro-life organizations led the battle against the initiative, pointing out that embryonic stem cell research has so far been a bust.
It is interesting that when Missouri voters approved Amendment 2 , which permitted embryonic stem cell research and cloning last year, it received national publicity, while New Jersey's rejection has garnered relatively little press.
In truth, most of the state ballot measures addressing the embryonic stem cell controversy pale in comparison to California's $3 billion voter-approved fund for similar research. Such highly experimental programs need huge amounts of cash and a sophisticated scientific infrastructure, something even California has trouble providing.
In truth, while the states are the battleground for embryonic stem cell research, this is really all about federal funding. The state campaigns have been part of a campaign to build up popular expectations that embryonic stem cell research will lead to a new era of scientific breakthroughs.
It is a remarkable "faith-based" campaign, since the only trials involving embryonic stem cells have either failed to work or actually done harm. But while the campaigns supporting such research tug on the heartstrings -- using sick celebrities, for example -- the real moral battle is about much more than simply funding.
Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of human embryos. Human life is created -- through the fertilization of human eggs with human sperm, but someday perhaps through cloning -- for the express purpose of destroying it for the sake of scientific research.
Embryonic stem cell research on the one hand confirms and furthers the kind of utilitarian mind-set that sees human life as expendable for the right reasons. Since no one any longer bothers to deny that an embryo or a fetus is human, the primary arguments for abortion or for the sacrifice of human embryos is simply that someone else has judged them to be expendable.
Pro-lifers in New Jersey worked hard to convince voters that the initiative was morally wrong as well as financially foolish. Post-election research may clarify that reason motivated most voters, but in the present climate, it may have been more wallet than conscience.
So far, the federal government has not gotten involved heavily in funding embryonic stem cell research because the Bush administration in 2001 put restrictions on what it would fund. But with Democrats in control of Congress already pressing for an expansion of federal funding of such research, next year's national election may bring a significant and lasting change to this debate.
Catholic voters need to make their voices heard now, lest the fate of stem cell research be decided for economic rather than moral reasons.