JIM LEHRER: Stem cell research is not just an issue in the presidential campaign; it's also on the California ballot. Spencer Michels reports.
ROBERT KLEIN: This is my son, Jordan, with a great smile on his face.
SPENCER MICHELS: California developer Robert Klein's 14-year-old son, Jordan, suffers from juvenile diabetes.
ROBERT KLEIN: Many of the children developed blindness. Forty-two percent lose their kidneys. In later stages of life, there's amputation. So the critical time clock is clicking.
SPENCER MICHELS: Klein believes that research on embryonic stem cells could help his son, and others.
He says many scientists believe embryonic stem cells hold the potential of curing a variety of diseases, since they can become any kind of tissue and can replicate themselves in the laboratory.
ROBERT KLEIN: Half of all the families in California are impacted by either diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or heart disease.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I have made this decision with great care.
SPENCER MICHELS: Klein was upset when the Bush administration, unwilling to allow federal funding for experimentation on new embryonic cells, limited stem cell research to about 20 already existing cell colonies, or lines, that many scientists say are corrupted.
Those restrictions prompted him to write a California bond issue called Proposition 71 that would provide $3 billion, $300 million a year for ten years from state funds to support research into stem cells. It would give scientists greater access to some of the thousands of embryos that are generated to help infertile couples conceive, as long as the couples agree.
Those embryos, which remain frozen in labs, are days old and tinier than a grain of sand. And the measure would make stem cell research a state constitutional right.
ROBERT KLEIN: We're trying to get around the crippling effect of the restrictions on the National Institute of Health that the president has put on.
As Nancy Reagan said, we have lost too much time already.
TV COMMERCIAL: DR. PAUL BERG, Nobel Prize Winner, Prof. of Cancer Research, Stanford: Stem cell research is an important scientific and medical breakthrough.
VOTER IN COMMERCIAL: I will vote "yes" on Prop 71.
COMMERCIAL VOICEOVER: If the promise of stem cell research...
SPENCER MICHELS: A slew of TV commercials featuring an array of prominent scientists has hit the airwaves.
For some voters, the measure has become a referendum on the Bush administration's attitude toward stem cell research and concern about the destruction of embryonic life.
JEFFREY BLUESTONE: He's not able to get the receptor...
SPENCER MICHELS: Immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, who directs the University of California's San Francisco diabetes center, is among those scientists who say science is being shortchanged by restrictions on government funding for embryonic stem cell research.
JEFFREY BLUESTONE: I've never been comfortable, and will never be comfortable, with the government stopping discovery from happening.
We don't know where discoveries are going to come from. Serendipity is at the heart of research discovery. And any time you stop research, you stop opportunity.
SPENCER MICHELS: Bluestone's colleagues in the diabetes center use adult stem cells while studying pancreatic cancer, trying to find out how the cells work as a way of working toward a cure.
They say they would like to use embryonic cells, but can't because of federal restrictions, and so they are supporting Prop. 71. The campaign in favor is financed by more than $20 million in donations, much of it from venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs.
They see California becoming a world center of stem cell research.
ROBERT KLEIN: The state of California will gain jobs, new tax revenues, and intellectual property revenues to pay back the taxpayers, along with huge health care savings if the knowledge just allows us to mitigate these critical diseases.
SPENCER MICHELS: The people fighting Prop. 71, an odd mix of opponents from the right and the left, have raised little money.
But they have raised numerous questions about the measure, based on ethics and money, and how far along the science is.
The Catholic Church, along with some evangelical Protestants, objects on similar moral grounds the president raised to experimenting with stem cells from human embryos.
Vicki Evans directs the Respect Life program of the San Francisco archdiocese.
VICKI EVANS: Even though the words "embryonic" and "cloning" never appear anywhere in Prop. 71, the whole proposition revolves around either using discarded embryos from in-vitro fertilization, or actually cloning a human being, and then it's ... we call it the "clone and kill bill." You clone a human being and then kill it before it can be born.
SPENCER MICHELS: Researchers say the replication of embryonic stem cells doesn't constitute human cloning. They also say that under the measure, they could take stem cells from embryos created in the lab, but those embryos would never be implanted in a woman or used for human cloning.
That's already prohibited by state law. Prop. 71 opponent Evans, who is a certified public accountant, has other concerns as well.
She, and the Catholic bishops, criticize the boost the money would give to a relatively small group of medical researchers, and they also fear the bond issue's effect on the state budget.
VICKI EVANS: It's causing California to go into debt to the tune of $3 billion, with interest, $6 billion, for research that has a very, very narrow scope, and research that has not been proven to have come up with any successes.
SPENCER MICHELS: Evans says adult stem cell research, which has had some success, doesn't have the same ethical problems.
VICKI EVANS: The Catholic Church supports 100 percent adult and any other kind of stem cell research where the donor of the stem cells doesn't have to be killed.
SPENCER MICHELS: Dr. H. Rex Green, who administers a northern California cancer center and calls himself a "left winger," not a religious conservative, alleges Prop. 71's proponents are selling snake oil.
DR. H. REX GREENE: They are making claims that they are going to cure over 80- plus diseases that afflict over 100 million people.
And what they have yet to show is that embryonic cellular therapies will either be safe or effective.
SPENCER MICHELS: Green says the tax burden of a gigantic bond issue on Californians, especially with the large state debt, is unjustified.
DR. H. REX GREENE: If these embryonic therapies do generate a profit, which is speculative and remote, there's no way to tie that into the financing of the bonds.
Private venture capitalists see this as speculative, they don't want to back it. Nobody wants to put their money on the table. They want to put it off on the taxpayers.
SPENCER MICHELS: For researcher Bluestone, state-financed stem cell research makes the most sense.
JEFFREY BLUESTONE: The best way to make sure that the research is done ethically, is done with the right motivation, and is done with the greatest chance of success, is to do it out of the public sector; to do it in a place where we have those controls.
SPENCER MICHELS: California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced his support for Prop. 71; the most recent statewide poll shows 46 percent in favor, 39 percent opposed, with 15 percent undecided. California Democrats support it better than 2-1; Republicans oppose it, though more narrowly -- both figures reflecting the national split on the issue.