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Poll: Most Americans Support Stem Cell Research

President Bush mulls government position

MONDAY, July 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Most Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, support research on stem cells derived from human embryos, a new survey shows.

A Harris Interactive poll shows more than 60 percent of Americans approve using discarded human embryos as a source of stem cells, which can develop into virtually any tissue in the body. The cells have the potential to treat a wide range of ailments, from heart disease and spinal cord damage to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

Although Pope John Paul II has urged President George Bush to ban embryonic stem-cell studies in this country, 61 percent of Catholics polled said the research should be allowed.

Bush is under strong pressure from religious conservatives who argue that destroying embryos while harvesting stem cells is tantamount to abortion.

The president's decision, which could come any time, would affect only publicly funded researchers such as scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or those who receive government grants. Guidelines crafted during the Clinton administration barred government-funded scientists from harvesting stem cells from human embryos but let them experiment on later-generation tissue created from those cells.

Bush suspended that policy after entering office and has yet to offer his own plan.

A majority of U.S. Senators, including a handful of prominent conservatives, and possibly a majority of House members, support government funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The Harris telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults found six in 10 support embryonic stem cell research. Roughly one in five said they objected to the experiments and 18 percent said they weren't sure.

Support for the research was slightly greater among the 68 percent of participants who said they'd seen, read or heard about the debate over stem cells.

Although some church leaders have urged Bush to ban work on embryos, the latest poll shows that even religious Americans favor using discarded embryos as a source of stem cells. Roughly 60 percent of Catholics, Protestants and other Christians surveyed said they supported such research. Fifty percent of born-again Christians said discarded embryos should be used to harvest stem cells, while 29 percent said no and 21 percent said they weren't sure.

Six in 10 adults also disagreed when asked if medical research on embryonic stem cells is "unethical and immoral," and 53 percent rejected the notion that the research should be banned because it "comes too close to allowing scientists to play God." And 72 percent of adults said they believe embryos can be used to produce stem cells, provided "the parents of the embryo give their permission, and the embryo would otherwise be destroyed."

Sixty-eight percent of Democrats supported embryo research compared with 49 percent of Republicans, and 16 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans rejected the research. Independents were essentially identical to Democrats in their views.

The White House did not return phone calls Friday for comment on the poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percent.

Stem cells can be extracted both from embryos and adult tissues, but scientists say stem cells from more mature sources aren't as versatile as those from embryos. Earlier this month, the NIH released a lengthy report calling for more research into both sources.

Thomas Murray, a member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which favors federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, says the Bush administration should heed the latest poll.

He says, "The public's opinion, when it comes to public policy about bioethics, does matter, and it matters very significantly."

"People will tell you that right and wrong are not matters of majority vote, and that's correct, but here we're not talking about some more absolute sense of right and wrong. We're talking about beliefs that are morally permissible and what public policy should be in response to those beliefs," Murray says.

He says the delay on a decision already has hurt scientists and science in general.

Even if the president lifted the ban on funding tomorrow, money wouldn't get into scientists' hands for months, he says. And many grant proposals that have been on hold will likely need revision to catch up with progress made by researchers in industry and other countries.

While many scientists in the field would likely turn to biotech companies to continue their work if they can't get government money, others might take the more radical step of leaving the country, Murray says.

Earlier this month, Roger Pedersen, a leading stem cell scientist in California, said he moving to England to avoid the uncertainty surrounding the status of embryonic stem cell research here.

What To Do

For more on the latest poll, check Harris Interactive.

To learn more about stem cells, try the NIH, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You can also visit the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

For more on ethical matters, check Bioethics.net.

SOURCES: Interviews with Thomas Murray, Ph.D., president, The Hastings Center, Garrison, N.Y.; July 25, 2001, Harris Interactive poll
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