PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sometimes you need an old-fashioned ballot referendum to clear some of the smoke around divisive issues. That happened in South Dakota’s rejection of a law that virtually banned abortion and a Missouri vote making that state safe for advanced stem-cell research.
The only other ways to gauge the public’s thinking on such matters is through polling or by the politicians the people choose. The politicians seem a poor source of information. Candidates may build a reputation on, say, their opposition to abortion or the war, but other issues do enter the picture and complicate the electoral calculus. And very often a contender’s winning personality counts for more than anything else. The cleanest way to judge public opinion on hard questions is to just let the people vote on them.
The results in South Dakota and Missouri certainly distressed many social conservatives, who had considered these electorates to be in their camp. What both outcomes revealed was an American public that is more moderate and modern than the national debate leads us to believe.
The ballot item in South Dakota, if passed, would have flatly barred abortion, other than to save the mother’s life. The rejected referendum was an honest “pro-life” law. There was no fancy footwork carving out exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape and incest. The law regarded the organism being formed as innocent life, whether conceived through criminal violence or marital love. Some anti-abortion groups, such as the National Right to Life Committee, had opposed the law — correctly guessing that the public would revolt at forcing a woman to carry the child of her rapist.
The campaign in Missouri against an amendment to protect embryonic stem cell research was a bit less straightforward. It centered on confusing the public over “cloning.” The opponents’ respectable argument, the defense of embryos, was all but buried — and for a practical reason. Fertility clinics routinely destroy unused embryos, and the public does not object — nor apparently do the foes of embryonic stem cell research (though they should, if they want to be consistent).
So the tactic moved to waving around the scary word “clone.” Embryonic stem cell research does involve a cloning process, but it goes no farther than creating cells in a lab dish able to turn into tissue that a patient’s body won’t reject. Say “human cloning,” and ordinary folk envision “human reproductive cloning” — the appalling and illegal creation of genetically identical human beings. The group fighting the measure cleverly called itself “Missourians Against Human Cloning.”
Another strategy was to smear Virginia and Jim Stowers, the billionaire couple who established the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo. — and who backed the amendment. The rap against the Stowerses, both cancer survivors, was that they had set up a company to profit from cures this research might produce. (I hope that their venture makes a zillion dollars, if it means that the science had succeeded in conquering such scourges as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or diabetes.)
Of course, embryonic stem cell research raises ethical dilemmas — thousands of them — and they will need addressing. The Missourians who narrowly voted to make their state a safe haven for the research no doubt expect strict guidelines. In a similar vein, the South Dakotans’ rebuff of a radical anti-abortion law in no way translates into support for unfettered access to abortion.
What both sets of voters did was reject outright bans on these activities. They have thus moved the center of the debate forward — to how these activities should be regulated. For that act of clarification, the American public owes them thanks.
Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board and a Creators Syndicate columnist.