July 6, 2022

Californian fisticuffs over stem-cell proposal

Californian backers of November's vote on a proposal to spend US$3 billion on stem cell research over 10 years are touting the financial return on the still-unproven technology, while its opponents are accusing it of shonky ethics.

Supporters of Proposition 71 say that the return on the bond issue which would finance the research will be immense, generating at least US$6.4 to $12.6 billion in state revenues and health care cost savings during the payback period, with a return on investment of at least 120% to 236% — as well as generating between 5,000 and 22,000 new jobs every year. According to a study by Stanford University academic Laurence Baker, the health savings would come from treatments or cures for just six of the many diseases which stem cell therapies could alleviate. Its opponents point out that the benefits of embryonic stem cell research are entirely speculative at the present time, while adult stem cells have already produced cures.

Ethical concerns have been raised by opponents of Proposition 71, not about the morality of destroying embryos, but about conflict of interest and informed consent. The institute to be set up with the $3 billion will not be subject to California's legislature, ostensibly to ensure that the government will not be tempted to raid the piggy bank. But Daniel Sarewitz, an expert on science policy from Arizona State University, says that this removes the research from public oversight. “Scientists don't like the fact that the ugly democratic process has stopped them from doing certain kinds of research,” he observes. “This is an attempt to got around that process.” And Diane Beeson, of California State University, Hayward, says that the institute will be able to rewrite the rules of informed consent. Proposition 71, she says, will result in poor women queuing up to sell their eggs.

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