The Magazine

An Indecent Proposition

From the October 18, 2004 issue: Do Californians really want to subsidize stem cell research?

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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CALIFORNIA IS FLAT BROKE, its budget a fiscal train wreck. Expenses have so far exceeded state revenues that this spring citizens of the Golden State were forced to pass a bond measure borrowing $15 billion (not including interest) just to keep the state afloat. And now, the Piper must be paid to restore fiscal stability.

The budget crisis is causing a world of hurt throughout the state. Essential government functions are crumbling. People injured in auto accidents or suffering gunshot wounds are in greater danger of dying because hospital trauma centers are closing for lack of funds. State health care for poor children is being cut to the bone. Services for senior citizens and the developmentally disabled are being slashed. Meanwhile, neighborhood schools are being shuttered as basic infrastructure repairs go unfinished.

Now would seem to be exactly the wrong time for California to borrow a total of $3 billion ($6 billion including interest) to pay biotechnology companies and rich university research institutes to conduct research into human cloning and embryonic stem cells. And yet, this is precisely the snake oil being peddled by supporters of Proposition 71 (the California Stem Cells Research and Cures/Bond Act). No wonder legendary Sacramento Bee political columnist Peter Schrag--a supporter of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR)--has scathingly denigrated the measure as an "audacious raid on the treasury."

California's initiative process was created in the early twentieth century to empower ordinary citizens to thwart special interests from gaining control of the legislature. Unfortunately, the process is, these days, used just as often by the special interests themselves to buy laws that otherwise would not pass muster. These well-funded groups employ paid signature-gatherers to get initiatives on the ballot and buy massive television ad campaigns to win public approval. The campaign for Prop. 71 is a good example. Its wealthy supporters are betting that promises of CURES! CURES! CURES! in a burst of star-studded television advertising will persuade Californians to ignore the fiscal folly of Prop. 71 and its hubristic agenda.

To fully understand the radical and bitter pill that California voters are being asked to swallow, the key portions of Prop. 71 need to be unpacked. This isn't easy, given the trouble the proposition's authors took to obfuscate their meaning. But, after a careful reading, it becomes clear that Prop. 71 is an arrogant power-grab that would fund and license morally controversial areas of biotechnological research with state-borrowed money. What also becomes apparent is that Prop. 71 would strip the state government of the power to control how billions of the people's dollars would be spent.

* Prop. 71 creates a state constitutional right to conduct research into human cloning: It doesn't merely seek a new law permitting embryonic stem cell research, which is legal in any event. Rather, it would amend the California constitution to grant biotechnologists the "right" to conduct experiments in human cloning (called "somatic cell nuclear transfer" in the initiative--the same process that led to Dolly the sheep). This means another voter-approved constitutional amendment would be needed to change any of its terms.

Proponents claim that Prop. 71 also authorizes research on adult stem cells and stem cells taken from umbilical-cord blood. But looks are deceiving. The measure requires that "priority" in funding be given to "research opportunities that cannot or are unlikely to receive timely or sufficient federal funding unencumbered by limitations that would impede the research."

There are no funding limitations or significant regulatory impediments to conducting adult stem cell or umbilical-cord blood research. So those areas of inquiry will not receive priority if the amendment passes.

The same is not true of embryonic stem cell research or human cloning experiments. Federal funding of ESCR is restricted to cell lines in existence before August 9, 2001. Moreover, the federal government does not pay a dime for research into somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning, nor are there any current proposals for it to do so (although Ron Reagan's speech at the Democratic Convention promoted that course). Hence, the measure would make it a constitutional requirement that priority in funding go to human cloning research, since that area of research currently receives no federal funds, with embryonic stem cell research next in line, since there are policy limitations in place that biotechnologists claim encumber the research.