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U.S.: California Voters May Bypass Bush On Controversial Stem-Cell Research

  • Andrew Tully

In addition to casting ballots for U.S. president, voters in California will decide on 2 November whether to have the state become the nation's center for research into stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized cells that can develop into every other cell in the body, while adult stem cells are a storehouse of replacement cells that could be used to treat damaged tissue or organs. Scientists believe stem cells hold great promise to treat or even cure such conditions as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and diabetes. But creating the most versatile of these cells requires the destruction of human embryos, usually provided from among surplus embryos at fertility clinics. This makes such research anathema to the many Americans who oppose abortion. Three years ago, President George W. Bush limited federal funding for stem-cell research to those embryos that were already being tested. Now, California may sidestep Bush by voting to fund such research at the state level.

Washington, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In announcing his decision on stem-cell research in 2001, Bush said he believed that harvesting stem cells by destroying embryos up to 14 days old is to destroy human life itself. He said that is wrong, regardless of the medical benefits.

The issue came up earlier this month in one of the pre-election debates between Bush and his challenger, Democratic Senator John Kerry. Bush again cited his objections to the practice, but noted that he is prepared to spend perhaps $25 million to go ahead with research that is already being conducted:

"Embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell," Bush said. "I'm the first president ever to allow funding, federal funding, for embryonic stem-cell research."

Kerry has proposed spending as much as $100 million in federal funds for stem-cell research, and he responded to Bush's statement by saying that his approach, too, is based on respect for life.

"I think it is respecting life to reach for that cure," Kerry said." I think it is respecting life to do it in an ethical way. And the president's chosen a policy that makes it impossible for our scientists to do that. I want the future, and I think we have to grab it."

Citizens in California are not waiting for the federal government to make up its mind and have decided to take the matter into their own hands. The California ballot on 2 November will contain a proposal to have the state take the lead in supporting stem-cell research.
If voters approve the proposal, California would spend $3 billion on stem-cell research.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- a Republican and a Californian -- suffered from Alzheimer's disease before his death earlier this year. His wife, Nancy, and son, Ron Reagan Jr., have asked Bush to reverse his stand on the issue of stem-cell research, which they believe could help future Alzheimer's sufferers.

If California's stem-cell measure passes, the state also would vastly outspend even Kerry on such research. If voters approve the proposal, the state would spend $3 billion on stem-cell research. With interest, repaying the bonds is expected to cost Californians $6 billion.

Former Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel said he finds the enterprise somewhat amusing. He represented Minnesota in the House of Representatives for two decades.

Frenzel believes such projects tend to be botched even when run by the far wealthier federal government, and said he thus has little confidence that California's effort will succeed.

But is such a state initiative proper, given that it entirely bypasses a clearly enunciated policy of the U.S. president? Yes, according to Frenzel. He noted that the U.S. Constitution regards states as sovereign, and so they can embark on any enterprise -- as long as it is does not violate federal law or the constitution.

"The wonderful part of our United States of America is the states can do things that are different, and they can take directions that are different from the federal government, if they want to pay for it," Frenzel said. "But I don't have a lot more confidence in many of our state governments than I do in our federal government to manage large projects successfully."

Ronald Bailey is more positive about the prospects for California's proposed stem-cell program. Bailey is the science correspondent for the magazine "Reason" and author of several books on science and public policy. He is now working on a book on the controversy in the United States over stem-cell research.

Bailey told RFE/RL that the U.S. government has had great success -- both medically and financially -- in supporting such research. He cited the case of Xalatan, a drug for glaucoma that was developed in part with a $4 million federal grant.

According to Bailey, profits from sales of the drug have generated federal tax revenues much greater than the original government investment.

Bailey said the problem is not California's proposed stem-cell program but the politics that interfere with important research and even taint it with what he believes are irrelevant moral and religious overtones.

"The whole thing has been about politics from the beginning because it's involved with abortion politics in the United States," Bailey said. "So, yeah, this is about politics. What it also is about is the politics of people who are, I think, yearning for the future and those who are afraid of the future. And Bush has, unfortunately, sided with, if you will, the timid people, the faith-based people who are afraid of science and scientific progress."

But Bailey said he has hope that one day the benefits of stem cells will become evident and that all but the most narrow-minded will embrace the research. He notes that 25 years ago, many of the same people who now oppose stem-cell research also opposed in-vitro fertilization, in which an egg is fertilized in the laboratory, then implanted in a mother's womb.

Since then, he said, some 2 million babies worldwide have been born thanks to in-vitro fertilization, and opposition to the procedure has evaporated.