A $3 billion state proposition to promote controversial stem cell
research in California qualified Thursday for the November ballot,
opening what promises to be a bruising campaign that pits moral critics
of the research against family members of people with incurable
The ballot initiative represents an
ambitious attempt to circumvent President Bush's stem cell policy,
which severely restricts research in the field. Even so, some promoters
of the research say state funding would set a dangerous precedent in
departing from the system of federally financed biomedical research.
of the "California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative" said they
turned in about 1.1 million signatures to California Secretary of State
Kevin Shelley, almost twice the minimum needed to put the measure
before state voters in the presidential election on Nov. 2.
measure, which requires a simple majority to pass, would authorize an
average $295 million a year in state-backed bonds to be issued over 10
years. Although the bonds would be guaranteed by tax revenue, no
payments would be due for the first five years.
ballot measure would require all the state-backed research grants to
stay within California, funneled to researchers through a new institute
that would be set up to weigh proposals. Backers say it is designed to
be self- financing and would require no new taxes.
initiative is backed by prominent scientists and research institutions,
including UCSF and Stanford University Nobel laureates, as well as
about 40 disease and patient-advocacy groups. Opponents include the
Catholic Church and other moral critics, along with some liberal groups
that argue the price tag is far too high.
debate is being watched around the world by researchers anxious to see
the stem cell field take off -- if a stable home and financing can be
found for it.
Peter Van Etten, head of the
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in New York, which provided a
$500,000 grant to the initiative campaign, likened the proposition to a
biological Manhattan Project.
initiative is an extraordinary undertaking," he said. "If it becomes
law, it could significantly accelerate research in many different areas
of this field. Certainly it will put a significant amount of money to
work in a very focused way."
Supporters say the
ballot measure would put California in the front ranks of one of the
most promising new fields in medicine, generating jobs and tax revenue
even before the research pays off in terms of new treatments for such
diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injury.
payoff in reduced medical costs would more than cover the cost of the
investment, assuming the research produces results as hoped.
would clearly become the world leader in curing chronic disease and
injury," said Robert Klein, a Silicon Valley real estate developer who
serves as state co-chair of the initiative campaign.
is "the only place in the world that can carry this off," he said,
citing the state's large number of biotech enterprises and research
institutions, which are expected to provide the bulk of the scientific
But critics say the state can't afford to
gamble on an unproven technology that has yet to cure anything. They
also contend the measure will divert resources from other
health-related programs with more immediate payoffs.
cells are the progenitors of all the cell types that make up the body.
Although stem cells can be found in nearly all adult tissues, the
debate focuses largely on stem cells derived from early-stage human
embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures.
embryonic stem cells are considered by many scientists to be
particularly important for researching basic human biology. The cells
also may become building materials, potentially, for transplant organs
or for repairing damaged spinal cords and other severe injuries.
that promise, the research is considered morally objectionable by some
critics because the embryos must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells.
"You can't take a stem cell out of an embryo
without killing it, and the embryo is the earliest form of human life,"
said Carol Hogan, communications director of the California Catholic
Conference in Sacramento, a lobbying and public-policy arm of the
state's Catholic archdioceses.
that the early-stage embryos involved in the research would be
destroyed anyway because they are left over from in-vitro
The measure also would
specifically ban any research involving the cloning of human babies,
although certain other forms of "therapeutic cloning" -- such as to
create stem cells genetically customized for a particular patient --
would be allowed.
Economic arguments also promise to figure prominently in the campaign.
Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly both issued
statements Thursday endorsing the initiative. They portrayed the ballot
measure as an investment in California's economic future, akin to past
investments in public education and transportation systems.
grow an economy, and to solve health problems, you have to be willing
to step up and make investments," Angelides said during a telephone
interview. "This investment is in the best tradition of California."
state already has a law on the books promoting California as a safe
haven for stem cell researchers. That was done to counter limits set at
the federal level.
In 2001, the Bush
administration sharply limited federally financed research to stem
cells created before August of that year -- an effort designed to allow
the field to move forward without financing the destruction of any more
embryos. But researchers say there are too few federally sanctioned
stem cell lines available. Now, scientists and members of Congress are
pushing the White House to relax the policy. The California initiative
backers say the state measure would still be needed, even if Bush
relents or Democrat John Kerry, a stem cell supporter, wins in
A few other states, including New
Jersey, have taken pro-stem cell positions with a promise of public
financing. But none has moved as aggressively as the stem cell
supporters in California to pay for the research.
conservatives have made no secret of their opposition. The state's
Catholic bishops voted to oppose the ballot measure during their spring
meeting, and a coalition of stem cell critics is forming in the state
to derail the measure.
"The people promoting this
are manipulating victims of chronic diseases and spinal cord injury and
other injuries into believing the cure is just around the corner, and
that is absolutely not true," Hogan said.
Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society,
an Oakland group that advocates women's right to choose, also
criticized the initiative Thursday, largely on practical grounds.
disputed claims of a net benefit to the state from jobs and royalties
generated in state-backed research centers. "That's a wish," she said.
"We don't see any evidence to support that."
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