On Tuesday, New Jersey voters defeated a state ballot referendum that would have put $450 million of taxpayer funds into stem cell research. It was a rare electoral victory for opponents of embryo-destructive research—made all the more surprising by its Garden State venue. New Jersey, after all, has some of the most extreme pro-cloning and embryo research laws in the country, explicitly permitting, for instance, the creation of cloned embryos and their development in the womb until the moment of birth.
In search of an explanation, the New York Times offers up the absence of a massive media campaign with deep pockets, of the sort employed in similar referenda in California in 2004 and in Missouri in 2006. In both cases, tens of millions of dollars were spent on ads attempting to persuade voters of the promise of embryonic stem cells—often using starkly dishonest and distorted arguments.
In Missouri, for instance, the advertising campaign coined the clever term “early stem cell research” (as in this ad) to avoid using the word “embryo,” and asserted that embryonic stem cells would cure Alzheimer’s (despite a near consensus to the contrary among researchers). In California, where a similar effort resulted in the creation of a $3 billion stem cell institute in 2004, pre-election deceptions about how the project would work continue to plague the new institute, which has now gone through several difficult leadership changes. Most recently, the institute hired as its director an Australian scientist who was caught lying to the Australian parliament in 2002 in order to obtain support for stem cell research.
These are just a few of the countless examples of exaggeration and outright deception in the political fight for embryonic stem cell funding. Recall, for instance, John Edwards’s promise in the 2004 presidential campaign that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”
Such tactics have lent something of the stench of the snake oil salesman to stem cell advocacy, and this has clearly had an effect. Opponents of the 2006 Missouri initiative found in the closing days of the race that pointing out the dishonesty of the initiative’s supporters was the most effective arrow in their quiver, and when they began to focus their energies on that case they very nearly defeated the effort.
Opponents of the New Jersey referendum learned that lesson. Referring to New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (who invested $150,000 of his own money in the ballot initiative campaign), one commercial run by opponents showed a slick salesman enticing viewers with “Governor Feelgood’s Embryonic Stem Cell Elixir; just $450 million—why, that’s practically free!”
Another ad put the matter bluntly. The referendum, it said, “is about taking your tax dollars for something that Wall Street and the drug companies will not invest in.”
Clearly this combination of the whiff of fraud and the specter of waste—rather than ethical objections to the destruction of embryos—brought down the referendum. Garden State voters have not suddenly become pro-lifers. But the tricks and deceptions of stem cell advocates in recent years might just have become all too apparent in New Jersey.