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Morality Goes Mum in Stem-Cell Fight

Proposition 71 foes realize that California is a pro-choice state. That's why they are stressing the research price tag.

September 29, 2004|Greg Johnson | Greg Johnson is an editorial writer for The Times.

If there's a controversy out there today that raises big ethical issues of life and death, it's stem-cell research. So naturally, one would think that Proposition 71 -- the Nov. 2 ballot initiative that would authorize a $3-billion, 10-year commitment to such research in California -- would be a fierce battleground between antiabortion advocates and pro-choice groups discussing their most fundamental principles.

But instead, morality barely merits a mention in the ballot argument against the initiative in the state's official voter guide. There's not a hint of the strong moral and ethical debate that has pitted Nancy Reagan against the White House, and the Catholic Church against groups like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Instead, the argument is almost entirely about the more prosaic, and arguably less important, issue of cost.

Why? Because prosaic or not, it's the argument that works. This is California, and polling has shown that many Californians already have made up their minds that stem-cell research is a positive step. So Proposition 71 opponents have made the strategic decision that they can win only by appealing to voters' pocketbooks. As in: A state facing serial budget deficits can't afford the kind of money ($6 billion when you add up principal and interest payments) needed to finance and build the initiative's proposed Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Arguing against Proposition 71 on its cost seems akin to opposing capital punishment on the grounds that a state can't afford the electricity bills. The proposition's opponents, however, say they'd be painting themselves into a losing corner if the issue were reduced to a right-to-life argument. That's why they describe theirs as a "big tent" with plenty of room for "liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, independents, medical professionals and stem-cell researchers."

Supporters of the proposition are also making something of a "rainbow coalition" argument and staying away from the potentially divisive right-to-life issue. They have, for example, won an endorsement from the California Chamber of Commerce, despite the $6-billion price tag.

The resulting debate is curiously empty of the moral thunder heard on Sept. 7 when Catholic bishops branded the destruction of human embryos for research as "playing God with the mystery of human life."

Why would the church, which is donating money to the Proposition 71 opposition, be content to hide its moral light under a bushel basket?

"We're instructed to be wise like serpents," said Carol Hogan, communications director for the California Catholic Conference. "The other side would dearly like to goad us into dividing the state into pro-life and pro-choice because they know they'd win."

So Californians will hear none of the clear language that Pope John Paul II used in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae: "Life, especially human life, belongs only to God: For this reason whoever attacks human life in some way attacks God himself."

Catholics, to be sure, will get the official company line from the pulpit, and the church will deliver its clear moral message in other ways. But within the broader framework of opposition to Proposition 71, the church is content to stick with what politicos say will work best -- warning about the threat to the state's shaky finances and the dangers of creating a new bureaucracy.

"You do what's politically smart," Hogan said. "There are so many things wrong with this proposition that you take your best shot."

In a state that runs more blue than red, that means going with a message that all but ignores the honest moral and ethical objections of Californians who do not want embryos turned into fodder for scientific research. Political consultant Wayne Johnson, an evangelical Protestant who is advising the anti-Proposition 71 forces, says it's simply a matter of good politics: "I win when I pay attention to what voters are thinking."

And in California, they're not interested in a morality play.

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