LOS ANGELES — A proposed ballot initiative in California would provide $3 billion in state funding during a 10-year period, dwarfing any other state or academic efforts to date, and would create a state constitutional right to stem cell research — including “therapeutic cloning.”

The initiative, which is being put forward by Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, could force the state to subsidize the creation and subsequent destruction of clones.

The plan was outlined in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 15.

Cloning is currently legal in California, and the funding measure would appear this November if it reaches its goal of more than a half-million signatures by mid-April.

Even before it has qualified for the ballot, Catholics and ethicists have expressed concern about its implications.

The carefully worded initiative, which uses the term “somatic cell nuclear transfer” rather than “therapeutic cloning,” has also stirred up controversy over its claims it will increase the likelihood of cures to common diseases.

“Though they won't say the word, what they denote as the ‘process in which the nucleus from a human cell, such as a skin cell, is combined with an unfertilized human egg cell is cloning,” explained David Prentice, a professor of life sciences and genetics at Indiana State University, in an e-mail response to questions from the Register.

Chad Griffin, a spokesman for Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, did not deny so-called “therapeutic” cloning could be done under the bill but said it would “forbid human reproductive cloning.”

While that might calm some people down, there is still a moral problem, explained Dominican Father Albert Moraczewski, who holds a doctorate in biology as well as a master's degree in theology.

A senior consultant to the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston and its emeritus president, Father Moraczewski said from his office in Houston that by the “therapeutic cloning process” of cloning an embryo and then destroying it, scientists “are killing a human life.”

Griffin declined to comment on the morality of the issue, stating that several scientists supported his group's views. But the Californians for Stem Cell Research Website did dismiss the ethical issue, stating that the embryos are not human.

“Scientifically, the tiny dividing cell clusters involved are microscopic collections of 100 to 200 cells — not ‘babies’ or ‘fetuses’ or ‘human beings,’” it said.

Nonsense, according to Prentice. “What is created is not a group of cells but a living human embryo. This is the simple biological fact, and no reputable scientist would dispute it,” he explained.

Arguing that embryonic stem cell research holds a great deal of scientific promise, Griffin and the Californians for Stem Cell Research Website have charged that “a minority in this country have held this country captive for political reasons.”

The Website goes so far as to state that “ultra-conservative” “scare tactics” have caused the Bush administration to “cut” funding for such research.

They are wrong on both counts, according to Prentice.

First, President Bush was the first person to ever authorize such funding, he said. Second, the claims made by the proponents of the measure simply aren't supported by science.

“The published science, however, shows just the contrary,” Prentice argued. “Embryonic stem cells have yet even to be attempted for patient treatments because they have not yet worked in the experimental animals.”

“There is great difficulty in controlling development of the cells and a significant risk of tumor formation,” he added.

Father Moraczewski said he finds the emphasis on “pluripotent” — that is, embryonic — stem cells “perplexing from a biologist's perspective,” agreeing with Prentice that embryonic stem cells hold little promise over other, non-cloned stem cells.

Carol Hogan, spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state in public policy matters, said the bishops will not make a public statement until the initiative qualifies, but she added that they have been watching the bill closely.

“[The bill uses] a very utilitarian approach,” Hogan said, and she warned that such thinking can lead to unconscionable conclusions. She said killing people — though morally wrong — could be a utilitarian solution to many problems.

The Catholic position is clear.

“Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being,” states No. 2274 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

No. 2275 continues: “It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”

And writing on cloning in 1997, the Pontifical Academy for Life stated the problems with therapeutic cloning explicitly: “In any case, such experimentation is immoral because it involves the arbitrary use of the human body (by now decidedly regarded as a machine composed of parts) as a mere research tool.”

Though Griffin of Californians for Stem Cell Research said there is “no deep pocket corporate funding” and all of the funding is by “individuals who have, or whose children have, diseases,” others disagree.

The whole proposal is financially motivated, according to author Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

In a March 12 article in the Bioethics and Culture Network newsletter, Smith wrote: “The national drive by the biotechnology industry to fill its nearly empty pockets with public funds for human cloning research is an audacious money grab … taxpayers should not have to pay for intensely controversial research that much of the private sector rightly sees as a dry well.”

Money grab or not, the proposal will do more harm than good if it passes, Prentice said.

“It will frankly take money away from the truly promising research, involving adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood stem cells … the cells that show real promise, and are already successfully treating patients for the diseases those pushing cloning and embryonic stem cell research can only speculate,” he said.

Indeed, researchers at the University of Florida recently cultured adult bone marrow stem cells to become insulin-producing cells, holding out a prospect of help for diabetics.

The California initiative, Prentice said, “rather than saving lives, will actually delay cures.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.