Currently in the petition-gathering stage, the California Stem Cell Research Institute Bond Initiative is a $5.5 billion bond measure that will likely appear before California voters in November. Its goal is to fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was created by 2004’s Proposition 71. It deserves vehement opposition from anyone who cares about research ethics and responsible public spending.
In the early 2000’s, embryonic stem cell research was viewed as an untapped treasure trove for medical research. Because the first cells of the human organism’s development—stem cells—will duplicate into every part of the human anatomy, researchers have hypothesized that such cells could be used to quickly grow different kinds of human tissue to treat various devastating illnesses. With stem cells derived from a patient’s clone, doctors could obtain tissues for treatment that the patient’s body would not reject as a foreign entity.
This was the rosy outlook of the early 2000’s, when many in the scientific community bewailed George W. Bush’s 2001 restrictions on federal funding for embryo-destructive stem cell research. In 2004, California aggressively decided to stand in the gap and fund this research with a $3 billion bond measure, Proposition 71.
With all of this promise, why shouldn’t the state continue funding such important-sounding research? Here’s why:
1. Cheapening human life: This bill funds stem cell research that requires the creation (via cloning) and destruction of human embryos. These are human organisms with entirely unique sets of DNA never before seen in human history, who are not burdens on any existing mother’s autonomy. To create human life via cloning, solely to use that living being’s cells for research, instrumentalizes and devalues human life.
Furthermore, the use of such embryos is unnecessary. Adult stem cells (i.e., stem cells derived from sources other than embryos and which do not result in the destruction of a human organisms) can now be brought to the same pluripotent state of embryonic stem cells, able to replicate and divide into almost any kind of human tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, and they are the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells, only they are cheaper and simpler to procure.
The obsessive focus on stem cells derived from cloned-and-destroyed human embryos has always hindered unified political support for such research. It turns the question of stem cell research into another front of our political and cultural fight over legalized abortion, when this is unnecessary.
2. Spending responsibility: Proposition 71’s supporters argued that the moral problems with embryo research were insignificant compared to the enormous potential for developing new cures and treatments. They claimed that the medical and financial yield in cures and treatments would far exceed the cost of a $3 billion bond investment. Those benefits have not materialized.
This is what the San Francisco Chronicle found when it reported on the question in 2018: “Not a single federally approved therapy has resulted from CIRM-funded science. The predicted financial windfall has not materialized. The bulk of CIRM grants have gone to basic research, training programs and building new laboratories, not to clinical trials testing the kinds of potential cures and therapies the billions of dollars were supposed to deliver.”
Why was it such a failure? CIRM backed the wrong horse: embryonic stem cell research. It turns out, when cells can turn into any part of the human organism, they will do so, uncontrollably. Embryonic stem cells are far more likely to cause cancerous tumors than to be suitable material for treatments.
By contrast, adult stem cells have swiftly become the gold standard for stem cell research, with tens of thousands receiving adult stem cell treatments each year and over 3500 ongoing or completed clinical trials. Because of their more limited capacity for cell division, adult stem cells are more controllable and, therefore, useful. Even CIRM has been forced to conclude this by diverting more of its money to adult stem cell research.
There is a limited pool of taxpayer money for medical research, and a kind of moral urgency (due to the possibly unnecessary suffering and death that potentially-curable illnesses inflict) to spend that money on fruitful avenues of research. It must not be wasted on dead-end projects motivated by ideology, vanity, or the financial self-interest of researchers.
In that calculus, CIRM is clearly no longer deserving of public funding, unless it fundamentally shifts its focus away from all research that involves the creation and destruction of embryos, and exclusively turns its attention to adult stem cells and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. Anything else would be an immoral waste of money and human life.