- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

On Nov. 2, California voters will go to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 71. Otherwise known as “The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act,” it would provide $3 billion in state funds for stem-cell research over the next ten years. Although intended to encourage all stem-cell research, Proposition 71 gives preference to the controversial embryonic stem-cell research, a process in which living human embryos are destroyed. If voters pass the ballot measure, California would become the largest state sponsor of embryonic stem-cell research in the country. It would also immediately thrust the country into the next stage of the stem-cell debate.

To review, stem cells can develop into specialized cells like heart, skin and nerve cells. For patients with cell-destroying diseases, like Alzheimer’s and cancer, the ability to regrow these vital cells could provide a cure. At least that’s the promise. The reality is that stem-cell research, whether from adult or embryonic stem cells, is still in a state of infancy. In other words, right now scientists aren’t trying to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s using stem cells — they’re trying to see if the possibility of discovering an Alzheimer’s cure using stem cells even exists.

Other than the very real ethical dilemma over using embryonic stem cells, the problem is that proponents of stem-cell research are less than forthright about reality. On Wednesday in Washington, California state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, a chief author of Proposition 71, said, “Even if there are only minimal gains [from embryonic stem-cell research], California will easily recoup the [$3 billion] cost.” That’s a bigger “if” than Ms. Ortiz and her supporters are willing to entertain. Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric, Americans should not be so easily misled. Several countries, including Israel, South Korea and Great Britain, have been funding embryonic stem-cell research since the 1990s with few tangible gains and zero cures. Also rarely mentioned is the fact that funding and research of embryonic stem cells in this country is entirely legal if conducted with private funds. Californians and eventually most other Americans have to balance both the ethical issues and the likelihood of success against the certain cost of that research.

Californians seem prepared to do just that. A recent Los Angeles Times poll suggests that Proposition 71 will pass easily. The vote could be much closer among the American public as a whole, which is more conservative than the California electorate. The real test of America’s deep ethical misgivings about such technologies will emerge if and when research begins to yield practical results.

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