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California's Prop 71 Divides Debate on Stem Cells

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

An alliance of pro-choice activists in California is splitting with usual allies to oppose a popular stem-cell research proposition. The group says the initiative does not adequately protect poor women from becoming a biological marketplace.

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An alliance of pro-choice activists in California is splitting with usual allies to oppose a popular stem-cell research proposition. The group says the initiative does not adequately protect poor women from becoming a biological marketplace.
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SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--As though to prove the adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, some pro-choice activists and feminists are joining anti-choice activists and the Catholic Church in opposing a controversial $3 billion stem-cell research initiative on California's November ballot.

The Pro-Choice Alliance Against Prop 71 says that while it generally supports embryonic stem-cell research it cannot support this specific initiative.

President George W. Bush restricted federal funds for embryonic stem cell research to 78 stem cell lines in 2001, and only 19 of those lines are available to researchers today. Prop 71 would defy the Bush administration by providing critical state funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The group argues that while millions of low-income Californian women lack basic health care, Prop 71 could relax safeguards over important ethical issues, such as the buying and selling of their embryos, and be a taxpayer-funded giveaway to biotech companies.

"Press coverage on Prop 71 has portrayed the issue of stem cell research as a conflict between the religious right and secular liberals," says Tina Stevens, alliance co-founder and bio-ethics historian at San Francisco State University. "Our critique does support most embryonic stem cell research; in stark contrast to the Catholic Church and other conservatives. But it also points out egregious aspects of Prop 71 that do not preserve the interests of the vast majority of the public."

The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative authorizes up to $3 billion in bond issuance with annual limits of $350 million. It would place California at the forefront of embryonic, adult and cord blood stem cell research by amending the state constitution to establish and fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which would issue grants and administer stem cell research.

A 29-member oversight committee would include University of California administrators, disease advocates and biotech leaders. An independent audit from a certified public accounting firm would verify spending.


Breaking with Vast Coalition

The Pro-Choice Alliance Against Prop 71 includes university professors, women's health activists and feminists and is backed by the California Nurses Association in Oakland, the National Women's Health Network in Washington, D.C., and Our Bodies Ourselves, the Boston-based women's health advocacy group that produces the popular health-book series.

But in opposing the ballot measure, it is breaking with a vast coalition.

Prop 71 supporters include dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, stars such as Michael J. Fox and Mary Tyler Moore, the California Medical Association, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, many state legislatures and hundreds of people and their families living with incurable illnesses.

Leading pro-choice and feminist groups also back the measure, including Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, the Feminist Majority and California NOW.

"How can we turn our back on the potential of this groundbreaking scientific research in good conscience?" asks Helen Grieco, executive director of California NOW in Sacramento. "As a feminist organization, we support health initiatives that benefit women. Stem cell research benefits all of us."

Proponents say the initiative could make California even more of a magnet for high-tech research. They also point out that stem cell research isn't about curing just one or two diseases, but instead revolutionizing the way medical conditions are treated.

"We are the world's biotech leader and Prop 71 will help ensure that we maintain that position while saving lives in the process," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently came out in support of the measure.


Unlimited Hope

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can generate healthy new cells and tissue. Adult stem cell research has led to successful therapies such as bone marrow transplants. Unlike adult stem cells--which are limited to becoming only the cell type of their tissue of origin--embryonic stem cells can become any cell type in the body. This means they could be a resource to replace cells and tissues to treat many of today's most serious conditions.

The Pro-Choice Alliance argues, however, that the proposition does not ensure strict controls over buying and selling of embryos for the research and could turn poor women into a biological marketplace.

"I'm pro-choice, but when did the right for women to control their own bodies turn into a laboratory's right to experiment with human embryos?" says Diane Beeson, a medical sociologist at California State University at Hayward, near San Francisco. "We need a national dialogue about this technology."

Embryonic stem cells are harvested from blastocysts, the growing group of cells that develops several days after an egg is fertilized. The blastocysts are obtained from fertility clinics, and donated by women receiving fertility treatment. The women grant informed consent to donate the embryos to science and are not paid, under federal guidelines set by the National Institutes of Health.

But the demand for embryos could grow as research develops and hard rules for such a market have not yet been set nationwide.


'Reasonable' Terminology Wanted

Those on both sides of the debate hope to avoid in stem cell research what has happened in egg donation, where print and television ads offer women upwards of $10,000 to donate their eggs to infertile couples.

Opponents of Prop 71 say the ethical guidelines are hazy. For instance, California law currently calls for "reasonable" reimbursement of expenses to egg donors while Prop 71 calls for "permitting reimbursement of expenses." Beeson says it is critical to retain the terminology "reasonable" so women aren't driven by large cash payments to give up their eggs, or otherwise be exploited.

Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, a supporter of Prop 71, said the argument that women would be coerced into donating eggs is "insulting."

"These are people with integrity," Kneer said of the coalition behind the measure, which includes most of the Democratic state legislature. "The downside to any initiative is they are imperfect in one way or another. But we think the best way to address these concerns is to come to the table."

Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter at the Oakland Tribune.

For more information:

Pro-Choice Alliance Against Prop 71:
http://www.allianceagainstprop71.org

California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative:
http://www.yeson71.com/

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