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Stem cell proposal hot topic on ballot

June 5, 2004
Carl Ingram
Los Angeles Times

An initiative that would have California state taxpayers underwrite $3 billion worth of research into using embryonic stem cells to develop cures for Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases has qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot, propelling the state to the forefront of a national battle at the intersection of science and morality.

The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would be financed by a state bond issue over 10 years, state officials said. Advocates contend stem cell research could lead to breakthroughs in curing numerous diseases.

The ballot initiative is an implicit referendum on an executive order President Bush issued in 2001. That action prohibited the use of federal research money for stem cell research except for studies involving a small number of cell colonies that had already been extracted from human embryos.

At the time, Bush said he chose to limit research to avoid doing anything that would "encourage further destruction of human embryos."

The challenge to Bush is made all the more dramatic by the fact that former first lady Nancy Reagan last month publicly embraced stem cell research as a way to aid people such as former President Reagan, who has Alzheimer's.

"I do think the initiative is designed in part to embarrass President Bush by putting pressure on the president to open up the federal spigots for funding," said Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle.

For Californians, the ballot fight could concern money as much as morality. The electorate this year already consented to borrow as much as $15 billion to help ease the state's fiscal crisis, and this measure would add an additional $3 billion in debt backed by the state budget's general fund. Nonpartisan legislative analyst Elizabeth Hill estimates that, including interest, the measure would amount to a $6 billion obligation.

That debt would be used to create a state agency that would give out grants and loans to researchers. The ballot initiative's proponents insist the new revenue and royalties from patents that might result from research breakthroughs would easily pay off the cost of the bond issue.

Moreover it would be a huge boon for the state's economy with researchers flocking in, supporters say.

The measure would make California the nation's premier public funder of research into stem cells. The cells can multiply rapidly and adapt to many kinds of bodily tissue, potentially providing vital clues to how healthy cells might be used to replace damaged ones.

Scientists say the research may lead to cures for diabetes, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and other degenerative diseases. On the other side, some ethicists and religious leaders fear the expertise will inevitably result in human cloning.

"I hope people get the message that this is an enormous expenditure of money in a financially strapped state for research that is increasingly seen as hypothetical," said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of anti-abortion activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington, D.C.

The debate has heated in other states as well. A handful, including Iowa and Michigan, have banned stem cell research.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the initiative.

Copyright © 2004, Los Angeles Times