PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In size and scope, no initiative on any ballot this year comes close to California's Proposition 71.
Crafted by a group of parents, scientists, Hollywood stars and venture capitalists, the proposal to spend $3 billion on embryonic stem cell research is a virtual end-run around the Bush administration that would put this huge state far ahead of most other nations in a promising -- and controversial -- new field of medicine.
While President Bush and his Democratic rival, John F. Kerry, squabble over whether to invest $25 million or $100 million of federal money in the field, Californians are considering a radically different course. In defiance of Bush's limited national policy, Californians are being asked to pour 10 times as much money into a state program, letting voters for the first time decide whether to invest tax dollars in a specific type of research.
If approved, supporters say the bond measure would revolutionize the fledgling science -- with California and its legions of academic laboratories and biotech firms at the epicenter. The payoff, proponents say, could be treatments for chronic conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury.
But the price is high, opponents counter, in both financial and moral terms. To pursue those treatments, scientists must destroy 5-day-old embryos, a process Roman Catholic leaders here call a "direct attack on innocent human life." Payments on the bonds would cost the state nearly $6 billion over 30 years, a sum many say California cannot afford.
The creators of Proposition 71 have assembled a powerful cast of advocates -- from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Nobel Prize winners, from the head of the Bush administration's stem cell task force to the late actor Christopher Reeve, who appears in a commercial taped shortly before his death. Other supporters include the California Chamber of Commerce, actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's, and George P. Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.
On the other side is a collection of unlikely allies -- feminists who fear the demand for embryos will create "egg farms," fiscal conservatives and evangelical Christians. They are short on famous names and even shorter on cash.
Although national polls show more than 70 percent of Americans endorse embryonic stem cell research, recent state polling puts support for the bond proposal at about 50 percent. By historical standards, that would not bode well for passage because late-deciding voters tend to oppose initiatives, but a deluge of pro-initiative ads could tip the balance.
"The fact that this is on the ballot at all is a stunning testimonial to the power of citizen advocacy," said Mary Woolley, president of the nonpartisan Research America, which promotes public investment in science.
Yet what Woolley and proponents hail as democracy in its purest form, others see as an abuse of the electoral process -- a small, well-funded constituency using emotion to sell expensive, unproven science. "This is taking billions of dollars from desperately needed health care to support this science project," said H. Rex Greene, medical director of the cancer center at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in San Mateo. "If this ever leads to cures, it will be decades away -- if ever."
Proposition 71 was born out of frustration, hope and, detractors would say, greed.
It started here in the shadow of Stanford University, in the nondescript office where Bob Klein has made millions as a real estate developer and where he drafted the initiative.
"I have a 14-year-old son with diabetes, and my 87-year-old mother is dying of Alzheimer's," said Klein, seated at a conference table strewn with legal pads, cell phones, tissues and packets of vitamins -- telltale signs of the final days of an exhausting campaign. "I see a tremendous amount of suffering at both ends of the age spectrum."
To patients and families, embryonic stem cells offer a spark of hope. They speak in urgent tones of not having time to waste on political haggling. Scientists are enthusiastic about cells taken from embryos because they have the unique ability to morph into almost any type of tissue or cell, potentially replacing diseased or damaged tissue with healthy, self-renewing replacements, in some cases grown from a patient's own cells.