Stem Cell Initiative Certified for Ballot
The $3-billion measure puts California in the forefront of an ongoing national debate
By Carl Ingram and Jordan Rau, Times Staff Writers
SACRAMENTO -- An initiative that would have state taxpayers underwrite $3 billion worth of research into using embryonic stem cells to develop cures for Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot Thursday, propelling California to the forefront of a national battle at the intersection of science and morality.
The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative is one of 14 propositions that will face the state's voters in this presidential election year, officials said. Advocates contend that stem cell research, which would be financed by a state bond issue over 10 years, could lead to breakthroughs in curing numerous diseases.
The ballot initiative is an implicit referendum on an executive order that President Bush issued in 2001. That action limited the use of federal funds for stem cell research to a small number of cell colonies already 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 -- who will also be on the ballot in November -- is made all the more dramatic by the fact that Nancy Reagan, the wife of Bush's political role model, last month publicly embraced stem cell research as a way to help people like Ronald Reagan, who suffers from 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 Castro Valley author and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank.
For Californians, the ballot fight could be about money as much as morality. Voters this year already have consented to borrow up to $15 billion to help ease the state's fiscal crisis. The stem cell measure would add another $3 billion in debt backed by the state's general fund. Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill estimated that, including interest, the measure would amount to a $6-billion obligation.
That debt would be used to create a new state agency that would give out grants and loans to a network of researchers. The 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, supporters say, it would be a huge boon to the state's economy, with researchers flocking here, and would advance the science internationally.
"You add a $3-billion funding possibility for ... research on stem cells, I think it just blows the top off the roof," said Michael Manganiello, senior vice president of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which is based in New Jersey and supports stem cell research.
Indeed, the measure would make California the nation's premier public funder of research into stem cells, which scientists value for their research flexibility. The cells, found in human embryos and adults, 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 believe the research could 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 end up with human cloning, even though that is currently illegal in California.
"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 pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington, D.C.
Though Bush heralded his 2001 order as a compromise between scientific advocates and religious groups, the decision hardly quelled the debate. Earlier this year, 206 members of the U.S. House -- including some abortion opponents -- signed a letter urging Bush to rescind his policy. A companion letter is circulating in the Senate.
Supporters say stem cells could be taken from some of the estimated 400,000 embryos frozen in storage from couples who attempted in vitro fertilization.
The debate has heated up elsewhere as well. A handful of states, including Iowa and Michigan, have banned stem cell research. Last month, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey allotted $6.5 million in seed money for research, but the California agency would dwarf that by essentially creating a state alternative to the National Institutes of Health.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the initiative and his office would not comment on it Thursday. His views may be presaged, however, by the administration's conflicted reaction to a law legislators passed last year that directed the state health department to develop guidelines for stem cell research, the first such law in the nation.
The administration initially moved to repeal the law because of the cost, which it estimated at $220,000 and two state employees' salaries. The administration has since stepped back from pushing for repeal and the Department of Health Services said it was "supportive" of the "underlying policy [the law] represents," according to a May 4 letter to state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), author of the law.
The initiative could put California's Republican candidates such as U.S. Senate contender Bill Jones in a tough spot.
"The fact that Nancy Reagan and private polls show that a sizable chunk of Californians are on one side of the issue and that President Bush is on the other side will cause political headaches for GOP office-seekers," said Darry Sragow, a consultant to Democratic candidates.
"It creates a real dilemma for Republican candidates who understandably would like nothing less than having to choose between Bush and the hard-core Republican base and the more moderate views of most Californians," he said.
But Wayne Johnson, a Republican consultant, dismissed the notion that Bush or Republican candidates would be hurt by the proposal. He said that regardless of whether a GOP candidate was for or against embryonic stem cell research, the proposal was vulnerable because it was so loosely drafted that it would allow the handing out of "billions and billions of dollars to people to really use almost any way they wish ... without any real assurance that the taxpayers get any benefit from it."
The measure calls for money to be distributed according to a 29-member citizens oversight commission appointed by the governor and top Sacramento lawmakers.
Priority would be given to stem cell research considered not likely to qualify for federal funding. The California agency would be barred from funding research into human cloning. Up to 10% of the money could be used to build research facilities for nonprofit research organizations.
The signature-gathering campaign drew support from stem cell proponents around the nation -- including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, a New York-based group that gave $500,000 -- and significant financial aid from such Hollywood personalities as Jerry and Janet Zucker and Doug Wick, a Reagan family friend, and his wife, Lucy Fisher. They are parents of children with diabetes.
"The families have been feeling very dispirited that politics in Washington had gummed up an incredible opportunity" to expand stem cell research, Wick said. He added that he did not know if Nancy Reagan would campaign for the measure. "We are so proud as Californians to have a solution coming from our own state," he said.
Venture capitalists and developers also have contributed to the campaign, which, as of March 31, had collected $1.9 million, state records show.
With the help of an influx of money in the last few weeks, the campaign has spent at least $2.6 million. It collected more than a million signatures, and the secretary of state's office said Thursday that at least 671,687 were valid -- 73,582 more than required to amend the state Constitution, which the measure would do.
So far, no moneyed interests have arisen in California to oppose the initiative, although it is likely to be condemned by fiscal conservatives fearful of what the measure would do to California's debt, already the largest in the nation.
"I don't know how much of an effort there can be from out of state on the opposition side," said Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The biotechnology industry and big names in Hollywood are already behind this and, between them, they can buy and sell the rest of us."