Proposition 71 on the November ballot looks like the last thing voters in debt-ridden California would want to approve right now. It would authorize $3 billion in bonds to finance stem cell research at a time when the state still hasn’t produced a truly balanced budget.
But this proposition is no ordinary bond issue. It has the look and feel of a crusade, with its backers talking as if it will lead to cures for a vast array of dread diseases – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.
Science does give them some reason for long-term hope. Stem cells, found in adult humans as well as embryos, are basic building blocks that grow into the more specialized cells of organs, blood and other human tissue.
Embryonic stem cells are the most versatile, but harnessing them for actual therapies is difficult and would be years away even for the simplest situations, such as injecting stem cells into eyes to treat certain kinds of blindness.
To hear some tell the stem cell story, however, there’s a trove of miraculous cures right around the corner – or through a door currently being kept closed by one George W. Bush.
This is the partisan side of stem cell politics. We saw it at the Democratic convention, when the party put Ron Reagan on in prime-time to make a pitch for funding embryonic stem cell research.
We hear it in the Democrats’ false charge that Bush has “banned” such research, when he actually was the first president to give it any federal funding.
The Democrats see a way to woo swing voters with stem cell talk. But in blaming Bush for supposedly standing in the way of miracle cures, they feed the stem cell hype by encouraging people to think the science is much further along than it actually is.
They also pretend that moral qualms over stem cell research either don’t count or somehow have been resolved. If anything, those concerns will grow as people get a clearer idea of stem cell technology.
Up to now, public debate has focused mainly on the use of embryos produced through in vitro fertilization but not implanted. But research is moving beyond reliance on IVF embryos toward the use of embryos cloned expressly to produce stem cells that can be matched to a patient.
This “therapeutic cloning” is sanctioned by Proposition 71, while the measure would ban cloning for reproduction.
But as author and anti-euthanasia activist Wesley J. Smith has noted: “Cloning is a dual-use technology.” The more reliable and seemingly risk-free it becomes, the greater will be the temptation to the now-forbidden but potentially lucrative reproductive realm.
Even if that slippery slope can be avoided, people must still come to terms with the fact that therapeutic cloning produces human lives designed only to end in the harvesting of cells.
It may be that the American people will confront such issues honestly and still decide that their tax dollars should be spent to push back the frontiers of stem cell medicine.
But at this point we doubt if they have had the chance to go through that much soul searching. We can say this much about the California proposal: Through the lens of fiscal and moral prudence, it looks premature at best.