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Survey: Most Americans Approve of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Most Americans generally approve or strongly approve of research on embryonic stem cells, according to a new survey.

The topic has been controversial, and the new survey showed that conflict.

The survey, which was done in September, included about 2,200 U.S. adults. It was designed to be unbiased and comprehensive, the survey’s authors note. They included Kathy Hudson, PhD, of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute.

Their report is called “Values in Conflict: Public Attitudes on Embryonic Stem Cell Research.”

About Stem Cell Research

Stem cells can develop into many different types of cells. Embryonic stem cells may be able to develop into a wider range of cells than adult stem cells. That’s attracted attention from scientists seeking new treatments for conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and paralysis.

Embryonic stem cells are isolated from human embryos, which results in the destruction of the embryos. That’s prompted debate about the ethics of stem cell research.

Most Voiced Approval

One of the survey’s questions was, “In general, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of stem cell research?”

The answers:

--Strongly approve: 22 percent

--Approve: 45 percent

--Disapprove: 17 percent

--Strongly disapprove: 15 percent

--Not applicable: 2 percent

Gender, Politics, Religion

Women were more likely to voice disapproval or strong disapproval of embryonic stem cell research (35 percent of women and 27 percent of men).

Democrats were more likely than Republicans to express approval or strong approval of embryonic stem cell research (75 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans).

Those with at least a college degree were more than twice as likely to strongly approve of embryonic stem cell research.

In addition, a “clear majority of those in all religion groups, except fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, approve of embryonic stem cell research,” states the report.

No significant differences in approval or disapproval were seen by racial and ethnic background.

Conflicting Values

Participants were also asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with five statements about embryonic stem cell research. Those statements included:

--“It is really important to protect human embryos, even if it will delay the development of new medicines.”

--“It would be terrible if cures were delayed because of policies that make embryonic stem cell research difficult.”

Thirteen percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed with statements about embryo protection and disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements promoting embryonic stem cell research.

The opposite views were expressed by 21 percent of the participants.

When asked what their bottom line was -- conducting embryonic stem cell research that might result in new medical cures or not destroying human embryos involved in that research -- 61 percent sided with research and 37 percent said not destroying embryos was more important.

Views Split

Participants were also split on how they viewed a human embryo in a Petri dish.

About 30 percent said they thought such an embryo has “no or low” moral status. About 28 percent said that same embryo has “maximum” moral status.

A third of the people who expressed “maximum moral status” for such embryos also approved of embryonic stem cell research.

Meanwhile, 17 percent of those who expressed a belief that embryos in a Petri dish have “no or low” moral status also voiced disapproval of embryonic stem cell research.

“Even for a sizeable number of respondents who fall at the polar ends of the moral status continuum, the commonly held expectation that they will support the corresponding policy extreme does not hold true,” write the authors.

Policy Change?

Currently, federal funding may be used to study a small number of embryonic stem cells that were created before August 2001 by embryos that were already destroyed

Participants were asked what they thought the government’s policy should be. Their answers:

--Ban all research to study or create embryonic stem cells: 16 percent

--Keep the current policy: 22 percent

--Back a proposal to expand stem cell research: 19 percent (The proposal was described this way: “The government should not fund research to create new embryonic stem cells, but if private funding is used to create new embryonic stem cells then the government should fund research to study those cells.”)

--Allow government-funded research to create and study embryonic stem cells: 40 percent

Changing Their Minds?

The participants were also asked if their opinions would change in two different hypothetical scenarios.

They were asked what they would think if a year from now, research showed that embryonic stem cells could effectively treat a serious disease like diabetes. Almost half of those who favored current stem cell policy said that would change their views.

Participants were also asked to imagine that a year from now, research developed a way to create new embryonic stem cells without harming or destroying the embryo. About 40 percent of those who initially backed a total ban on embryonic stem cell research said that would change their views.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute, “Values in Conflict: Public Attitudes on Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” News release, Berman Bioethics Institute.