The Magazine

Suckers for 'Science'

How to talk California taxpayers out of $3 billion.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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THE PASSAGE OF PROPOSITION 71 in California (the Stem Cell Research and Cures Act) was an acute case of electoral folly. As Californians plunged headlong into a $6 billion quagmire of debt in a quixotic quest for "miracle cures" from human cloning and embryonic stem cells, they simultaneously rejected Prop. 67, an initiative that would have added a modest tax to phone bills to keep the state's endangered emergency rooms and trauma centers from shutting down.

This is a remarkable and disconcerting development. It wasn't long ago that California's trauma centers were the pride of the state and a model for the world. In the heyday of the trauma center movement, emergency rooms throughout the state were upgraded to ensure that critically injured people could receive quality care within the "golden hour," a 60-minute time frame that dramatically increases a person's chances of survival. Needless to say, such centers are very expensive. Which made them politically vulnerable after the dot-com bubble burst and the California legislature's spending binge led to a collapse of the state's finances.

The bitter irony here is that while Californians refuse to fund treatment centers that could make the difference between people living and dying today, they are pursuing treatments and cures that, if they come at all, are likely a decade or more away. What could explain such folly? Blame the awesome power of big money, big celebrities, and big hype.

Ever since President Bush limited federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research in August 2001, Big Biotech and its partners in major universities has sought to regain the advantage. Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning courted celebrity disease and injury victims to become the campaign's spokespersons, who then testified before Congress and sat for softball interviews on Larry King Live and Oprah. Politically potent and well-funded disease victims' organizations, too, worked the halls of power, appealing to the universal human desire to alleviate suffering. Science went out the window, as advocates peddled junk biology to win the debate. And the entire campaign was funded in the millions by biotech companies and coordinated by their trade association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media performed terribly, often misstating or skewing the science, hyping what could be accomplished in a reasonable time frame by biotechnology, and denigrating the moral concerns of bio-skeptics as mere religious fanaticism. Minor advances in embryonic stem-cell research were touted as proof that miracle cures were on the way, creating false expectations on the part of suffering people yearning for cures. Meanwhile, advances in adult stem cell and other non-embryonic regenerative treatments were either ignored or damned with faint praise.

When President Ronald Reagan died, most of the media (with the notable exception of the Washington Post) parroted the inaccurate assertion that Reagan might have been helped by embryonic stem cells--when in reality patients with Alzheimer's would probably be the last to benefit. Public hype reached its height, however, in the presidential election, with Senator John Edwards's promise that a Kerry presidency would result in disabled people getting out of their wheelchairs. A close second was Ron Reagan's speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he promised, ludicrously, that therapeutic cloning could lead to each of us having a "personal biological repair kit" available to cure our ailments at local hospitals.

Still, despite the energetic advocacy, the issues of embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning remained at an impasse at the federal level. So, frustrated biotech fundamentalists pursued money at the state level. After the advocacy campaign described above had tilled the political soil, they quietly placed Proposition 71 on the ballot.

In a state the size of California, the only way to communicate effectively about politics is on television. That takes a lot of money. Proponents amassed a formidable fund that exceeded $25 million, paying for a load of television advertising. Heightening the effect was the usual pack of Hollywood celebrities, particularly Brad Pitt and the late Christopher Reeve (who taped a "Yes on 71" ad a week before he died), once again supported by patient advocacy groups.

Proponents were met in the public square by a coalition of strange bedfellows, religiously-based bioethics groups, fiscal conservatives, the Catholic church, pro-lifers, and some feminists and leftist environmentalists, who were able to amass a mere $400,000 campaign chest. And they were still in the game, until Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger--who had been the center of an intense political tug-of-war over his endorsement--shrugged off his fiscal sensibilities to endorse Prop. 71.