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Calif. ballot measure set to ignite stem cell research debate

Nancy Reagan's advocacy could sway voters

SACRAMENTO -- A $3 billion stem cell research initiative has qualified for the ballot in California, and both sides are marshaling their forces for what is expected to be a heated debate about science, morality, money -- and the desperation to find cures for some of humankind's most loathsome diseases.

Backers hope momentum is on their side, given the attention generated by former first lady Nancy Reagan, who last month delivered a poignant plea for expanding the controversial research that she and others believe could lead to medical breakthroughs.

Supporters of the California initiative, while avoiding any appearance of exploiting the recent death of Reagan's husband, President Ronald Reagan, acknowledge that the former first lady has helped their message resonate among an increasingly sympathetic public.

One recent national poll suggested that three-fourths of Americans are inclined to support stem cell research, partly because of the former president's death and his widow's call for action after watching his long struggle with Alzheimer's.

"I'm sure her words touched everyone personally, and will make people think about the issue. Her remarks were extremely poignant," said Janet Zucker, a friend of Nancy Reagan who with her husband, movie producer Jerry Zucker, is among those behind the ballot measure.

"For her, it's not about politics. It's about the pain she's personally felt . . . I think Nancy is coming at this from a personal place," said Zucker, whose 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago.

During a May 9 fund-raiser sponsored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the former first lady made her first public remarks supporting stem cell research -- though she has thus far not endorsed the ballot initiative.

"Science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with answers that have so long been beyond our grasp," she said. "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this -- there are just so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped."

Her remarks were widely reported and spawned another wave of calls urging President Bush to relax restrictions put in place in August 2001 that limited federal funding to research on more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines that were already in existence and would not pay for research creating new ones -- a policy that critics say hampers science. Only 19 of those lines are currently available, according to the National Institutes of Health. Bush has said he will stick with his policy.

Stem cell research, particularly that involving embryos, remains controversial because of the same moral debate that has roiled discussions about abortion. To harvest embryonic stem cells, embryos must be destroyed. Some also fear that technology developed for so-called therapeutic cloning could be used for reproductive cloning, which would be prohibited by California's ballot measure.

Embryonic stem cells are of particular interest to researchers seeking cures or therapies for chronic and life-threatening diseases, particularly juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Research is also providing hope to people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. Its potential to treat Alzheimer's is less certain.

Embryonic stem cells, or so-called pluripotent cells, harvested from days-old embryos, have the remarkable ability to develop into any of the highly specialized cells that eventually become the human body and its organs.

But researchers concede that it could be years, perhaps decades before "miracle" therapies, if any, are developed. Still, the hope offered by a science still in its infancy has spurred a push for further exploration.

"As we dither and argue, we aren't making any progress, and people don't have the time to wait. It should be full steam ahead," said Lawrence Goldstein, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "This is hard work, and things are being hampered by this whole political snarl."

Because of the Bush administration's stance, some states have launched their own stem-cell programs. New Jersey has earmarked $6.5 million as the first installment of a $50 million institute.

Harvard University is in the midst of a $100 million fund-raising campaign to benefit its stem cell work.

California's initiative, however, is by far the most ambitious foray, public or private. The initiative seeks approval in November for a $3 billion bond measure that would create a new state agency responsible for distributing nearly $300 million in research funds annually, for 10 years, to California researchers. Priority would go to studies of embryonic stem cells, but work on adult cells would also be eligible.

"If the California initiative passes, it will be the single most important event in embryonic stem cell research," said Lawrence Soler, vice president of government relations for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which backs the measure.

The California Catholic Conference opposes the initiative but will not focus its opposition on moral concerns, said conference spokeswoman Carol Hogan. Fiscal concerns, in times of tight state budgets, may resonate better with voters, she said.

"Don't get us wrong, we object to the killing of embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells," Hogan said. "But that argument is not going to the one that will move people on this issue. It will move Catholics, we hope; but out west, religious arguments mostly get shot down."

That may not stop other religious groups from pushing the moral argument, Hogan said.

Opponents have formed a coalition -- Doctors, Patients and Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility -- and are putting together a united front against the initiative.

"California is not in a position to fund this, and they'll be doing it on the taxpayer's back," said Jennifer Lahl, national director and founder of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, part of the opponents' coalition.

Opponents say the state cannot afford to risk more debt. They see the bond measure as a money grab by research institutions. They question scientists' insistence on pursuing embryonic research when, they contend, adult stem cells could be just as scientifically fruitful. And they accuse proponents of giving unrealistic hope to the afflicted.

"They are playing on the hopes and fears of people," said Nigel Cameron, who chairs the board of the bioethics center and is a former professor of theology at Trinity International University's Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

"People are being influenced by their fear of death and disease, and are being hounded by celebrities and hype," Cameron said, while acknowledging that Nancy Reagan "will have a huge impact on this campaign."

But he added, "Had President Reagan still been around and been free of [Alzheimer's disease], he would have been the one cheering on the opposition," noting Reagan's conservative views on abortion. Stem cell research was never an issue during the Reagan presidency; the science emerged a decade after he left office.

"As a campaign, we've certainly been pleased with the national attention the issue has gotten," said Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, which got the initiative on the ballot.

Should Nancy Reagan take an active role in the campaign, she would pose a formidable foe. "I don't think it would be a lost cause, but it would be an uphill battle," said Hogan, the Catholic Church spokeswoman. 

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