Long ago in November of 2004, the people of California voted for a ballot proposition that would spend around $6 billion (including interest charges) on cloning and embryonic stem-cell research. It was a strange campaign, vastly lopsided (pro-cloning spending was around 50 times that of the opposition), aided greatly by the late and somewhat unexpected intervention of Gov. Schwarzenegger, and driven by some of the worst hype in the history of American politics. The people of the nearly bankrupt state were promised cures and also cash returns on their investment—within five years. It was said that before principal repayments fell due, there would be cost savings from the cures that would more than cover the vast costs of the project.

Too good to be true? Well, snakeoil has been sold before. As I pointed out (with Jennifer Lahl) in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed before the vote, if you make that kind of claim in an IPO rather than a ballot measure, you can go to jail.

Much has happened since. The bond issue is being held up by court challenges. Liberal supporters of the proposition, including Deborah Ortiz, its key booster in the state senate, have woken up to some of the huge problems it raises—not least, the facts that profits from any "cures" that result will not go to the state and that poor women may be used as egg farms by researchers.

On top of that, a bizarre scheme has been hatched to get nonprofits to fund research while the money is held up in court. But if the courts pull the bond issue, these nonprofits will have to turn their loans into gifts. Bob Klein, the property developer and financial whiz who first ran the campaign and is now running the Institute set up by the proposition, has been fending off challenges from all directions.

Two key news items hit the wires this week. First, despite nearly unanimous votes in the state legislature (28-0 in the Senate and 72-2 in the Assembly), the governor has terminated a modest effort led by Ortiz and others to tackle some of the most scandalous aspects of the project. Their bill's focus was on protecting women from having their eggs harvested, an issue that has brought pro-choice and pro-life advocates together. It also sought to tighten audit requirements.

Schwarzenegger's view is that it would have been in conflict with Prop. 71, which takes the form of a constitutional amendment. Since its backers had crafted the bill to survive challenge on that ground, it is curious Schwarzenegger did not leave it for the courts to resolve. Plainly, the governor believes Prop. 71 needs to be defended at all costs.

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By contrast, listen to this: "Much of the California electorate was sold last year on the idea that human embryonic stem-cells might be turned into amazing cures for incurable diseases, propelling Prop. 71 to easy victory in the Nov. 2004 election. Now, it's increasingly clear that stem-cell transplants for diabetes or Parkinson's or Alzheimer's are nowhere close, maybe decades away."

That is not a quote from one of us who has been fighting Prop. 71 and its ridiculous claims, but it is the calm assessment of Carl Hall, science writer with the San Francisco Chronicle. Hall cites top embryologist Rudi Jaenisch of MIT who believes that the focus now is on using cloned embryos as disease models—in other words, for basic research.

The heady days of one-on-one medications and miracle cures seem to be over. Had the people of California been told this sober truth last fall, the state would be $6 billion less in debt.

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Cloners' ethics: Dr. Hwang, the Korean scientist who has grabbed the world's attention by cloning human embryos for research and cloning a dog for birth, has come up with a great idea: Let scientists write their own ethics code. According to a report in the Korean press, he is working on a 10-point ethics "charter." I wonder what it will say about cloning.

Euthanasia: The rise in support for medical killing has been slow—much slower than many of us expected—but it has been steady. Setbacks for the pro-euthanasia crowd, like serial killer Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was recently interviewed by MSNBC while serving his sentence and was a terrible embarrassment to euthanasia supporters, has tended to make them more cautious. They now try to disguise their aims euphemistically as "physician-assisted suicide." It still involves the doctor deciding to kill the patient and coming up with the means, even if the patient actually takes the pills. Oregon's law has given those who favor killing a bridgehead in the U.S., though it is in the Netherlands (Holland) in Europe that euthanasia rules. And the Dutch have just decided to make it easier.

Meanwhile, the U.K. is coming closer than it has ever been to moving in the euthanasia direction. A recent report notes that medical opinion is in flux as the U.K. Parliament comes to debate a report that is favorable to the "Oregon" approach.

From embryos to euthanasia, life's sanctity and dignity are under pressure—as the frailest and most dependent of human beings come under the power and decision-making of the strong.

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Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
The Stem-Cell Conspiracy | The Washington Post muddles a major breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, while the U.K. marches blindly on. (Aug. 29, 2005)
Brave New Puppy | Introducing our new life ethics weblog. (Aug. 10, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: