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.

* Prop. 71 uses obfuscating language to mask its true intent: Although the measure is clearly created to fund experiments into cloning human embryos and research into embryonic stem cells, the word "embryo" does not appear anywhere in the text. Instead, the measure tellingly refers to embryos as mere "products." Nor is the term "embryonic stem cell research" used. Instead, Prop. 71 authorizes research into "pluripotent stem cells," which are defined as cells that "are capable of self-renewal, and have broad potential to differentiate into multiple adult cell types. Pluripotent stem cells may be derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer [e.g., cloning] or from surplus products of in vitro fertilization treatments when such products are donated under appropriate informed consent procedures."

Meanwhile, knowing that the majority of people oppose human cloning for any reason, the authors pretend that the measure does not permit it, using the scientific term "somatic cell nuclear transfer" as if that were not a cloning technique. The "yes on 71" campaign even sued to prevent opponents from making the ballot argument that the measure concerned human cloning, even though the text of the measure actually uses the C-word to identify the identical biotechnological activity (somatic cell nuclear transfer) required for reproduction. The judge saw through the ruse, however, ruling correctly that somatic cell nuclear transfer is, indeed, cloning, and pointed out that this "is really the heart of the debate" over Prop. 71.

Prop. 71's supporters make much of the fact that the measure would not fund reproductive cloning and that it would "initially" require that all embryo products (whether natural or cloned) used in the research be destroyed after 12 days (the modifier "initially" telegraphing that a broader license may be contemplated). But these restrictions actually mean little since the measure would pay billions for researchers to conduct the very experiments into somatic-cell nuclear transfer needed for human reproductive cloning to become a reality.

Prop. 71 would also pay researchers to learn how to reliably create and maintain cloned embryos to the "blastocyst" stage when they can be harvested for stem cells. But the blastocyst stage is also when the cloned embryos could be implanted into a woman's womb. Thus, the information gained from spending California's borrowed money could be used by others to arrange for the birth of cloned babies. Indeed, Woo-suk Hwang, the South Korean researcher who created the first, and so far only, cloned blastocysts for use in stem cell research, admitted earlier this year, to the Korea Times, that his cloned embryos could also have been used for reproductive cloning.

* There are few checks and balances in Prop. 71: Funds for Prop. 71, the measure says, "shall be continuously appropriated without regard to fiscal year . . . and not subject to appropriation or transfer by the Legislature or Governor for any other purpose." This means elected officials would have no power to alter or reduce spending on stem cell research undertaken through Prop. 71. Even if the much-feared "Big One" earthquake were to hit San Francisco, knocking the Golden Gate Bridge into the bay, biotechnologists would still be entitled to their $295 million of borrowed money each year!

The absurdity does not end there. Under Prop. 71, the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee, which would govern the institute that would make grant-funding decisions, would be exempt from certain aspects of California's Open Meeting laws. And the committee's relative privacy would not be easily disturbed by legislative action. Any change to Prop. 71's spending and oversight scheme could not be made until the third full year after the measure became law, and changes would require a hyper-majority 70 percent vote of both houses of the legislature and the governor's signature. Also, the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee is sure to be packed with representatives of research institutions and disease advocacy groups, who are unlikely to be objective overseers.

There is no doubt that the supporters of Prop. 71 desire to help ill and disabled people live better lives. But passing a corporate pork-barrel constitutional amendment to pay fat-cat companies and rich universities to engage in highly speculative and morally controversial research is not the way to achieve such an end. Not only would Prop. 71 divert money needed to fund basic services and to pay off existing debt, but it would also almost certainly hasten the birth of the first cloned baby. Meanwhile, it would delay research into adult stem cells and those found in umbilical-cord blood--research that, unlike cloning and embryonic approaches, has advanced in animal studies to the point where human trials are beginning.

Peter Schrag had it just right when he awarded the corporate welfare boondoggle that is Prop. 71 "the chutzpah prize in ballot box budgeting."

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His newest book, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, will be published in October.