Stem cell research more than just a religious debate

Opponents say there is too little oversight on finance and cloning issues; proponents say Proposition 71 is the first step to make cures possible.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

Most of the coverage of Proposition 71, the $3 billion state bond measure for embryonic stem cell research, has been limited to the philosophical and religious issues of whether an embryo is an actual life form that must be protected. But a group calling itself the Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71 is not opposing the measure for religious reasons, but rather because it feels the measure promises too much and presents too many risks.

Many doctors believe that embryonic stem cell research can one day lead to the cure of many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and paralysis. Proponents of the measure say this will be the first step in beginning that research to make those cures possible. The campaign got an extra boost last week when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came out in favor of it, despite heavy opposition from his Republican colleagues in Sacramento.

“[The initiative] is an affordable solution that closes the research gap, so new treatments and cures can be found,” the proponents wrote in their argument that appears on the ballot.

But the pro-choice alliance says the measure is flawed for several reasons. They say it is not true that cures for diseases are on the horizon if stem cell research begins, as it is implied in television advertisements. Because of that, they say it is not a good idea to be spending a tremendous amount of money on this research, while hospitals are closing around the state and other state medical cutbacks are occurring. They also say the initiative does nothing to address cloning issues, placing little restriction on what type of research can be done.

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“Without a universal ban on human reproductive cloning (not just in California) and further public debate about the use of this technology [stem cell research] for nontherapeutic purposes, its further development at this time is ill-advised,” the pro-choice alliance wrote on its Web site.

A spokesperson for the initiative responded by mentioning how cloning is banned in California (although a federal ban does not exist) and pointing to a statement in the proposition that says, “No funds authorized for, or made available to, the institute [for the stem cell research] shall be used for research involving human reproductive cloning.”

However, Malibu bioethics attorney Debra Greenfield, who is pro-choice and supports embryonic stem cell research but is opposed to Proposition 71, said that statement in the initiative does not ensure no cloning would occur from this technology. Greenfield said this is because the proposition calls for the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which involves the cloning of embryos to produce embryos for research. She said this bill would basically allow for every step in cloning but the final one in which the cloned embryo would be inserted into the woman.

“You can’t just sweep away the issue by saying you don’t intend to reproduce a child,” Greenfield said.

Another problem the pro-choice alliance has is the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee that will be created to oversee the money generated from the bond. Most of the members on the committee would be composed of representatives from California universities, nonprofit research institutions, private life science companies and disease advocacy organizations. The alliance says because these are all people with a vested interest in embryonic stem cell research, this leads to conflicts of interest.

“Without somebody watching these guys, it’s a little scary,” Greenfield said. “Every single person involved is a special interest that might benefit from this research. There needs to be disinterested groups involved.”

Roger Salazar, spokesperson for Yes on 71, said the potential conflict of interest issue would be addressed. “No member can vote on a grant proposal that applies to their organization,” he said.

While the benefits of embryonic stem cell research may be years away, research using adult stem cells is already being used for beneficial purposes, says Dr. Dennis Rodgerson, a Malibu resident who is chief executive of NeoStem, a privately owned adult stem cell bank. Rodgerson said the subject of adult stem cell research benefits is often lost in the stem cell debate. Although he said he is admittedly biased, he said he would like an equal amount of money to be spent on embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research.

Rodgerson said embryonic stem cell research would be more beneficial in the long run, because it is an embryo in a basic, untainted form. But he said embryonic stem cells are more difficult to handle, so that the benefits are decades away. But, he said, adult stem cell research is beneficial now, and he predicts it could lead to cures for major diseases within the next decade.

Salazar said this bill would be helping all stem cell research that needs the funding. “This bill will fund under-funded areas of stem cell research. It will fund other areas that show promise and help fund ongoing areas of research that have inadequate funds, but it will not duplicate efforts in one particular field.”

Damien Weaver contributed to this story.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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