June 24, 2008

What Americans Think About Embryo Research

By Father Thomas Berg *

In my column last week, I explored the recent historical events and politicking that have come to shape contemporary American attitudes toward embryo-destructive stem cell research.  Arguably, most polls in recent years have indicated a slowly growing acceptance of such research.  A new poll, however, conducted by Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center and recently published in the journal The New Atlantis, challenges us to be cautious about our claims in this area.


In the stem cell wars, "all sides," writes Yuval Levin, "have wanted to claim a pre-existing bedrock of widely shared attitudes backing their favored policy outcome."  The EPPC poll suggests, by contrast, that "to better understand public opinion on bioethics, one must begin by abandoning the premise of just about all those who have sought to wield such opinion in the political arena: that the public has views that are clearly defined or strongly held" (emphasis added).


Now, it is well known that polls will report views differently depending on how questions are formulated by the pollsters - this is no secret to anyone who has studied or conducted polling or used polling research to build an argument. The EPPC poll [1] reveals something different. By altering the formulation of questions within the poll itself, EPPC pollsters have garnered convincing evidence that Americans' views on stem cell research in general, and embryo-destructive research in particular, will not only be reported differently depending on how a question is asked, but that their views are simply not well defined at all. Their views are ill-defined because, as those being polled will generally admit, their knowledge of stem cell science is exceptionally poor. [2] 


Here is a sampling of its findings.


Regarding embryo-destructive stem cell research specifically, when the question was posed in ethical terms, a small majority of respondents expressed opposition:


It is unethical to destroy human embryos for the purposes of research because doing so destroys human embryos that are human beings and could otherwise have developed and grown like every other human being.

          Total agree:  51%


But when the question was rephrased in terms of curing diseases the result was different:


The social, economic and personal costs of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos.

          Total agree:  54%


But when the question was cast as a more crystalline moral principle, the same respondents shifted their responses again:


An embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.

          Total agree:  62%


Yuval Levin is the author of the study and director of the EPPC's program on Bioethics and American Democracy.  One important conclusion Yuval notes in the article is that:


Such glaring contradictions in opinions about the basic facts and circumstances of embryo research suggest that most Americans simply do not grasp how these different pieces hang together, and therefore respond positively or negatively based on the portion of the larger picture they happen to be presented with. Both medical promise and ethical concern prove highly persuasive, even though they point in opposite directions.


In an email, I asked Yuval to elaborate further on this finding in particular.  On this point, he underlined the key finding of the poll: Americans know they don't know enough about embryo research to have well formed opinions.  Quoting Yuval:


One of the lessons of the poll is... that the level of substantive public knowledge of the embryo ethics issues in particular is extremely low, and that people's confidence in their knowledge is also extremely low. That latter point is especially important, because it is very unusual. There are very few issues on which pollsters find respondents telling them frankly that they have little or no knowledge. This acknowledged lack of confidence offers an opening for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues.


Consequently, as Yuval cogently insists in the article, "the goal of activists and interested parties to the bioethics debates should be to learn how best to educate the public, rather than to wield essentially meaningless statistics about existing attitudes."  I couldn't agree more.


What is desperately needed, at the current juncture in the stem cell wars, is an on-going, honest, and accessible presentation of the facts of stem cell science in the public square.


Yuval went on to describe for me what he considers the most salient of the lessons learned from this poll: 


These lessons add up to a very important whole: people want a way forward that respects ethics and advances medicine, and they don't know enough to know if such a way is possible. That is the mission for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues: to show them that there are ways to advance medical research while respecting ethical boundaries, and that a greater understanding of the facts involved will demonstrate that. It is not the case that the desire for cures trumps all. That creates a huge opening for us, and helps us begin to see how we might walk through it and influence public opinion to support ethical research.


In a word, Yuval is saying that we have to seize the moment. With the evidence mounting every day that ethically acceptable alternatives to embryo-destructive research may well prove to be even more effective and efficient than their immoral alternatives, we have to continue to make this known to the broader public and to our elected officials. As Yuval puts it, it would indeed be a happy day when we could see science and ethics marching together, rather than in opposition.




[1] The poll was conducted by the polling company, inc., beginning in August 2007 with two focus groups conducted in Illinois, and concluding in February 2008 with a national telephone survey based on information garnered from the focus groups and some past polling on similar issues. The survey involved 1,003 American adults, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.


[2] Notes Levin:  "This relative absence of knowledge about even the most prominent of the embryo-research issues is made emphatically clearer in the responses to particular questions of fact. Asked, for instance, whether adult or embryonic stem cell research had yielded any therapeutic results, only 23% of respondents answered correctly that, to date, only adult stem cells have resulted in treatments for disease. This lack of basic knowledge and confidence means that people are uncertain of the facts and the issues at stake, so that how the subject is framed makes an enormous difference in shaping judgments about policy preferences."

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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