Californians voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to spend $3 billion to fund stem cell research in a move that will put the state where it seems most comfortableon the cutting edge of politics and scienceand also deeper in debt.
According to preliminary estimates, roughly 60 percent of voters of all ages, race, income, and education passed Proposition 71, which would underwrite 10 years of research into stem cells and surpass any U.S. public funding now targeted to study stem cells.
"We need this now," said Beatrice Berkman, a senior citizen from Los Angeles who voted for the measure. Berkman's son died recently of a blood disorder, which she believes could possibly have been cured through stem cell research. "My son might be here if we had stem cell research to find a treatment for his disease," she said. Scientists believe that stem cell research may make treatment successful for a wide range of diseases that include cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries. More than 128 million Americans suffer from such diseases, including an adult or child in nearly half of all California families.
The initiative, which was being watched closely across the nation, was endorsed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who broke ranks with his party and George W. Bush, whom he supported, to back a group of Democrats pushing the measure. Prop. 71 was bankrolled by $25 million in campaign contributions from Silicon Valley venture capitalists hoping to spark a biotech boom in the state, tech billionaires including Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Hollywood stars, and wealthy individuals with sick friends and family members.
In addition to helping to cure diseases, backers of the measure say the funding program could establish California as a hub for leading-edge research, creating jobs and opportunity in the state and putting it on a par with stem cell research centers such as Singapore and Britain. Good results both scientifically and economically could also influence policymakers, large pharmaceutical companies, and venture capitalists to fund more research.
Proponents of the initiative argued that the California measure was necessary because the Bush administration has severely restricted funding of human embryonic stem cell research to about $25 million a year, slowing progress in the field.
Those who opposed the initiative, including many religious groups and women's rights activists, did so mainly because of ethical and moral concerns about using human embryos for research. But they also cited concerns about the economic toll the $3 billion measure would take on a state already drowning in debt. Opponents raised about $400,000 to fight the proposition.
It was one of the most contentious of the 16 initiatives on the state ballot and at times threatened to break out into a celebrity catfight, particularly after the sudden death of paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve. Reeve and actor Michael J. Fox, who is afflicted with Parkinson's disease, both appeared in commercials for the proposition. Actor and The Passion of the Christ filmmaker Mel Gibson was the only Hollywood celebrity to come out publicly against the proposition, which had also been opposed by the Roman Catholic Church. Gibson, who also recorded a commercial about the initiative, argued that it would lead to human cloning and would ultimately cost California taxpayers $6 billion that could better be directed elsewhere.
"It's very easy for people who don't see disease and deadly disorders every day to vote the other way," said Annie Babakian, a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center who voted to support the measure. Still, many nurses groups opposed the proposition on the grounds that it did not provide adequate safeguards against human cloning.
Technically, Prop. 71 establishes the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to regulate and fund stem cell research solely in the state of California. The institute is expressly prohibited from funding human reproductive cloning research.