WASHINGTON (BP)–Two-thirds of Americans, including half of conservative Christians, approve of stem cell research that destroys human embryos, according to a recent survey.
The poll, sponsored by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, also revealed an American public that is concerned about protecting human embryos but even more supportive of research that results in their destruction.
“The survey underscores the fact that those who are selling embryo-destructive stem cell research have done their job,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a leading evangelical bioethicist and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The survey results, released Oct. 13, came as debate continues over the federal government’s role in stem cell research. There are efforts in Congress to liberalize President Bush’s policy, which bars federal funds for destructive embryonic stem cell research. The House of Representative approved such a measure earlier this year. The Senate appears to have a majority in favor of that bill but has yet to vote on it.
The new research showed 22 percent of those surveyed said they “strongly approve” of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), while 45 percent said they “approve” of such experimentation. Fifteen percent of Americans strongly disapproved, while 17 percent disapproved.
Every subgroup –- whether classified by sex, age, education, political party, religion or race -– favored approval of ESCR over disapproval, according to the survey.
Only those classified as “fundamentalist/evangelical” failed to achieve at least 55 percent approval for embryonic research. Fifty percent of fundamentalists/evangelicals supported ESCR, with 9 percent strongly approving and 41 percent approving. Forty-eight percent disapproved, with 25 percent of those strongly disapproving. Fundamentalists/evangelicals provided the highest percentage of respondents who strongly disapproved among the subgroups.
In a series of statements posing the protection of embryos against the pursuit of research, the following results were found:
— Forty-one percent agreed the use “of embryos for research is dehumanizing and turns embryos into commodities,” while 56 percent disagreed.
— Forty-eight percent said it “is really important to protect human embryos, even if it will delay the development of new medicines,” and 50 percent disagreed.
— Fifty-three percent agreed it “would be terrible if embryos were destroyed because of policies that promote” ESCR, while 44 percent disagreed.
— Fifty-six percent said it “is really important” to find cures for diseases such as diabetes “as quickly as possible, even if it means destroying embryos to do so,” while 41 percent disagreed.
— Sixty-seven percent said it “would be terrible if cures were delayed because of policies that make embryonic stem cell research difficult,” and 30 percent disagreed.
“These kinds of data show that the public find both embryonic stem cell research and delaying cures problematic,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago, Ill. “Sadly, we can’t have it both ways. These responses reveal public confusion more than anything else. The poll shows that Americans favor stem cell research, but they are very conflicted when it comes to experiments that destroy human embryos.”
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at Family Research Council, told Baptist Press after a news conference announcing the poll results he thinks “what we’re looking at is again this dichotomy — the American public has ethical concerns, but also they want cures. We tend to be a very pragmatic public, especially when we’re only given certain limited options to choose from.”
The questionnaire should have included non-embryonic stem cell research as an option to respond to, Prentice said. So far, embryonic stem cells have produced no treatments for human beings, while non-embryonic stem cells have provided therapies for at least 65 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia. Taking stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood -– does not harm the donor.
In a section asking about the moral status of an embryo, 28 percent gave a week-old embryo in a Petri dish “maximum” moral status, meaning it is always morally wrong to destroy the embryo. Yet, 36 percent of this group approved of ESCR. An embryo normally is no more than a week old when stem cells are extracted, causing its death.
In a question on government policy, 16 percent favored a ban on research with embryonic stem cells, 22 percent supported the current government policy restricting funds for ESCR, 19 percent backed federal funds for research on embryos created with private funds and 40 percent favored federal funding of all ESCR. Bush’s rule allows funding for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence prior to his August 2001 announcement barring funds for all other stem cell experimentation on embryos.
Michael Manganiello, cofounder of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, said the fact 81 percent of respondents had heard of embryonic stem cell research was one of the most important numbers in the survey.
Six years ago, “very few people understood what embryonic stem cell research was and the promise that it held,” he said at the Oct. 13 news conference. “In many ways time has given pro-embryonic stem cell research supporters the ability to educate the American public about this complex scientific and political issue.”
Prentice told BP, “You know, I could be disappointed by [the results], but I’m not so much. It’s a challenge, because I really believe this is an educational issue. Most people don’t understand the difference between an embryonic and adult stem cell, and how they’re obtained, and their actual successes even in patients. And what I’ve found is when I’ve talked to people and explained those differences and the real results, the usual question is, ‘Why is anybody interested in embryonic stem cells?’”
A problem for ESCR opponents is “trying to get the word out to [Christians] to make sure they really do hear this, because most people get most of their information from the popular press. And we need to make a really concerted effort, whether it’s individually, in churches, grassroots or whatever, to inform people about the ethical adult stem cells and the problems with embryonic.”
ESCR foes also “should make it clear that the morality of embryo-destructive research is not determined by polls,” Mitchell told BP. “Ethical questions are answered on the basis of principles and virtues, not public opinion.”
Mitchell and Prentice both pointed out different polls on stem cells produce different results. A May survey commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found 52 percent of Americans oppose federal funding of ESCR, while 36 percent favored it.
In a survey earlier this year, the Genetics and Public Policy Center reported 76 percent opposed human embryo cloning for research.
The Genetics and Public Policy Center describes itself as an independent clearinghouse for information on genetic technology and policy. Its advisers include pro-life and pro-choice experts. Mitchell is on one of its advisory committees.
The new survey had more than 2,200 respondents with a margin of error of 2.5 percent. The poll results may be accessed at the center’s website, www.dnapolicy.org.