The debate over California’s Proposition 71 is intensifying as election day draws closer, and the parties for and against the ballot initiative are securing last minute endorsements and airing commercials they hope will sway voters’ decisions when they go to the polls Tuesday.
Proposition 71, which would fund and support stem cell research in California, has been hailed by supporters as a way to possibly finding cures for many debilitating diseases, and assailed by opponents for its dependency on public financing and the way the research would be overseen.
According the National Institutes of Health, stem cells are “unspecialized,” meaning they do not perform specific functions within the body such as the beating cells of the heart muscle, or the insulin producing cells of the pancreas.
Under certain experimental conditions, stem cells can be induced to become cells that do in fact perform special functions, and can also renew themselves over long periods of time. Because of this, scientists hope that these stem cells may be used in the future to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes, along with treating spinal cord injuries.
Proposition 71 would establish the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to regulate stem-cell research and provide the necessary funding for the research and facilities.
The money for the measure would come from the sale by the state of $3 billion in general obligation bonds, which would be paid off over the course of 30 years, adding another $3 billion in interest, for a total cost to the state of $6 billion.
In a press release issued Oct. 18, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I am, of course a supporter of stem cell research. Research that we do now holds the promise of cures for tomorrow.
“The creativity and resources are right here in California. We are the world’s bio-tech leader and Prop. 71 will help ensure that we maintain that position while saving lives in the process.”
Michael Goldman, a professor of Biology at SF State, also endorses the proposition. "I am solidly in favor [of it]. While I don't think it's really California's responsibility to carry out this essential work for the entire nation, I do believe someone has to take the first bold step, and I'm glad it's us," said Goldman. "California law encourages the research, but now we're offering to pay for it as well. Unfortunately, more conservative legislation on a national basis could make the work illegal."
Other supporters include California State Senator and SF State alumni John Burton (D-San Francisco), along with Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo). Actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has recently appeared in television commercials broadcast throughout the state endorsing the proposition.
As with every issue, however, there are two sides to the story. Recently, several people and groups in the state have come out against Proposition 71, charging that the measure has not been written with the best interests of patients, taxpayers, and responsible research in mind.
“I think that all Californians should be worried just by the amount of money, it’s really quite an audacious raid on California’s treasury,” said Jesse Reynolds, program director for the Center for Genetics and Society, a non-profit group based in Oakland. “It will cost $6 billion after interest, and it will lock up that money for one specific type of research—it lacks the flexibility that if other avenues of medical research appear more promising, California won’t be able to pursue those.”
Reynolds said the risks of the particular types of technology and research that would be conducted, along with their possible effects on women whose eggs would be used in the research.
He also questioned how the patents and intellectual properties that may arise from the studies, and the potentially resulting money, would then be divided between the state and private companies involved. “The Center supports embryonic stem cell research and its public funding, but it needs to have responsible public oversight.”
Tina Stevens, who teaches history at SF State, and wrote “Bioethics in America: Origins and Cultural Politics,” a book published in 2003 by Johns Hopkins University Press, is also opposed to Proposition 71. “[Proposition 71] has inadequate controls over certain things like women’s health issues, inheritable genetic modification, [and] human reproductive cloning. It builds in legal exemptions for itself, and its claims for promises we feel are inflated, as well.”
Stevens, who has also taught a class in Bioethics at UC Berkeley, is a member of Pro-Choice Alliance Against Prop. 71, a coalition composed of individuals and groups that count the California Nurses Association and the National Women’s Health Network among its supporters.
“The problem is that with such tremendous financial conflict of interest, one could, even unintentionally, inflate claims, and overlook ethical difficulties that require good oversight, and regulations that need to be spelled out very clearly,” said Stevens.
Both Reynolds and Stevens stressed that they and their groups are pro-choice, and support stem cell research in principal—they just don’t think that Proposition 71 is the right way to go about doing it.
According to a statewide survey released this month by the Public Policy Institute of California, Proposition 71 is favored 50% to 39% among likely voters.