To date, researchers mostly used "spare" frozen embryos that would otherwise have been discarded by fertility clinics. Proposition 71 would allow California scientists to use state funds to work with such embryos or to create new ones in a laboratory in a process called nuclear transfer technology, or therapeutic cloning.
In August 2001, Bush decided to limit federal support to only the cell colonies, or "lines," that had been harvested -- touted to be more than 60 at the time, but in reality just a couple dozen viable lines. His compromise reflected an attempt to balance "good science with good ethics," he said recently.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) supports Proposition 71.
Lynn Fielder, a 42-year-old mother who takes half a dozen pills every three hours to manage her Parkinson's, sees the ethical dilemma differently. "It would be absolutely irresponsible to not be pursuing something like this," she said. "What can be more moral than saving the lives of people who exist and easing the burden on their families?"
Researchers complain that the Bush policy, and proposed GOP legislation to criminalize treatments using embryonic stem cells, has put a chilling effect on the scientific community.
"I got into this because I really see a threat, particularly when it is based on ideology or religion," said Paul Berg, a Nobel winner at Stanford. "Proposition 71 is our way of saying, 'We're not gonna take it any more.' We have the wherewithal, and the citizenry is backing us to move forward with this opportunity."
A few other states have passed "safe harbor" legislation allowing embryonic stem cell research, and New Jersey is poised to spend $5 million a year on it, but none approaches the ambition of the California measure. Klein designed the bond proposal so that the state would not make payments for the first five years, an approach that helped sway Schwarzenegger.
With Klein's $2.5 million as seed money, the group Cures for California has raised more than $24 million, with large checks from wealthy donors such as Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.), advocacy groups such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and numerous venture capitalists.
Opponents, who have raised less than $200,000, describe those donations as a thinly veiled financial grab by special interests. "A group of venture capitalists spent about $5 million to access $6 billion in taxpayer money," said Tom Bordonaro, a former state lawmaker who has had to use a wheelchair since a car accident 27 years ago. "That's a pretty good return on investment."
The California Catholic Conference has distributed "homily notes" for every Sunday in October, detailing arguments against the initiative. The notes draw analogies to abortion, urging parishioners to defend "innocent life" by voting no.
The umbrella group Doctors, Patients and Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility, focused on fiscal issues. It calls the initiative "a blatant taxpayer rip-off that lines the pockets of a few large biomedical corporations" at a time when the state is "teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."
This weekend, on television sets across the state, Reeve delivers the final appeal for the initiative. The spot is introduced with a message from his family explaining they "wished to honor his memory by airing this, his last recorded message." From his wheelchair, the paralyzed actor urges: "Please support Prop. 71 -- and stand up for those who can't."
About 3,000 miles away, on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health, views are mixed. James Battey, chair of the NIH stem cell task force, is an enthusiastic supporter who says Proposition 71 could "transform" stem cell research.
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, taking pains to note he was not present when Bush devised his stem cell policy, said the initiative could "complement" his agency's work, but he offered a cautionary note about voters setting research priorities.
"You can see what is politically attractive can take precedence over what's important from the standpoint of public health," he said. "In the long run, I don't think the nation should make decisions in that manner."