Yes to Stem-Cell Research

Proposition 71, a measure on the Nov. 2 ballot funding $3 billion worth of research using embryonic stem cells, is at heart California’s version of a Bronx cheer. This rude and deserved raspberry is intended to both insult and subvert President Bush’s decision to prohibit federally financed scientists from working on all but a few dozen embryonic stem-cell lines. We are for it, despite our general misgivings about such ballot propositions.

In general, spending decisions should be made by the Legislature, which can consider the budget as a whole, not by referendum. Paying for basic medical research has not traditionally been a state government function. Government bonds traditionally are used to finance concrete projects such as roads, schools and bridges, which serve the citizens -- and may even bring in revenue -- for many years. Capital spending, in the argot of business. It’s a way of borrowing from the future to pay for the future. Stem-cell research, supporters argue, is similar -- an investment in biological infrastructure. It will produce not just new cures but profits on patents and tax revenues from new businesses with the gumption to kick-start it.

There is reason for skepticism. A bridge, you can see. A bridge, you can even sell if necessary to pay off the bonds. If stem-cell research doesn’t pan out, California taxpayers will be paying principal and interest for decades, with nothing to show for it. Yet California has not done badly over the years with pump-priming investments -- literally, with the water projects that made Los Angeles and Southern California the economic motor of the state; with highways and a great university system, among other examples.

And two things make this state investment more sensible than most. First, if stem-cell research produces cures for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or diabetes or, more distant, if it enables paraplegics to walk again, the payoff will be measured in ways more important than money. It’s not a wild gamble. Some stem-cell therapies, such as bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, are often successful and are widely used.


Second, the Bush administration has consistently exaggerated the scientific value of its tiny exception to the federal funding ban, for stem-cell “lines” created before Bush announced his policy. It also exaggerated the promise of adult stem cells. In fact, Bush’s ban has done what it is supposed to do: drastically curtail stem-cell research.

The federal abandonment of this promising field makes it a better bet for the state.

The organized opposition to Proposition 71 has made a gutless case concentrating on bogus side issues, such as whether the safeguards for patients are inadequate (they aren’t). The real reason people oppose embryonic stem-cell research is a sincere belief that embryos are human beings with human souls and full human rights.

Stem-cell research uses embryos left over from treatments at fertility clinics. They are microscopic dots of a few dozen cells. Ordinarily, these embryos are destroyed or frozen indefinitely. No “new” embryos are created or destroyed because of stem-cell research. Stem-cell cures, when they come, will use cells reproduced in the laboratory and will not involve embryos at all. More immediately, passing up a shot at curing Alzheimer’s would at most allow some microscopic embryos already in deep freeze the right to be frozen for good. Stem-cell research is not a sure thing, but bold initiatives in which California is uniquely qualified to succeed are worth the initial gamble.