Ken Garcia: Opponents’ legal obstructions helping no one in stem cell fight 

The great hope has always been that stem cell research could result in new treatments for a wide variety of illnesses. But California's landmark initiative to fund the newborn science has so far only proved a need for a cure to stop frivolous lawsuits.

This week, the California stem cell agency, based in San Francisco, issued its first grants — nearly 17 months after the measure to create the country’s largest stem cell research institute was overwhelmingly approved by state voters. And while the $12 million handed out by wealthy philanthropists to fund initial research was a positive step, the amount pales in comparison to the $350 million annual fund that was set aside by voters in November 2004 to study life’s building blocks.

It's a pattern that is growing costly and old: lose at the ballot box and immediately funnel your ideological arguments into a lawsuit. An Alameda County Superior Court judge is expected to soon rule on two lawsuits that claim the measure — for different reasons — violates the state Constitution. The judge in the case has already said she found the opponents’ arguments that the initiative does not provide sufficient state oversight of the stem cell agency unconvincing, but still the matter drags on. And the organizations backing the lawsuits have already said they would appeal an adverse ruling — throwing the matter back to the courts in time-honored fashion to delay Proposition 71 from taking effect.

That must stir a familiar feeling for San Francisco residents, who witnessed a similar ambush against Care Not Cash — the popular homeless-reform measure — that so-called advocates spent more than a year trying to block. Of course, since that measure has proven to be successful to an extent even its backers can hardly believe, it just points out how wrongheaded some of the legal challenges have been.

But that doesn't even begin to approach the push to stop California from taking its place as the unparalleled leader in stem cell research. The great irony over the creation of a multibillion-dollar stem cell program is that state voters pushed for its creation because the Bush administration has blocked federal funds from being used for most of this research.

Prop. 71 was the frustrated response from families affected by the research limits, who find it unconscionable that possible cures for diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are being impeded by religious beliefs. Ever pushing the envelope for dramatic scientific and medical research, state voters agreed to set aside $3 billion for stem cell research over the next decade to make California the undisputed leader in the field.

Yet populist will is no match for a well-timed lawsuit, and litigation by taxpayer groups and religious organizations opposed to the use of human embryos has frozen the state bonds that would fund the effort. The research is controversial because to cultivate the cells, human embryos have to be destroyed. But lost or often pointedly left out in this argument pushed by religious conservatives is that the majority of 400,000 frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization are unused and unwanted and will ultimately be discarded. And those promoting the sanctity-of-life view insist that the federal restrictions mean these embryos must go untouched.

But even many conservatives opposed to abortion — and more than 250 members of Congress — have pushed for an end to federal limits on this research, and those limits are almost certain to be lifted by the next occupant of the White House. And since California’s breakthrough stand on the issue, several other states are considering their own stem cell initiatives — though armed with the case study here on the West Coast, they are trying to write their measures with rock-solid language to thwart courtroom challenges.

Being first in the field, however, means that California’s jump to seek cures for untold numbers of injuries and diseases has been rendered a false start. There needs to be some judicial remedy to speed up the process — a benchmark of sorts, so that if there is a legal challenge to an initiative that is just passed by voters, it gets streamlined through the courts and the appeal process. That’s the only way to put an end to a tactic of legal obstruction and subterfuge that has served the interests of the few to the detriment of the many.

That may be too idealistic and possibly unrealistic, but it falls in line with the same hope that someday stem cell research may provide cures to a number of serious illnesses. And that’s not a desire that should be left for lawyers to decide.

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Ken Garcia

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