The Silent Stem Cell Majority

The Silent Stem Cell Majority

There is a popular myth that stem cell research is a major front on the culture wars, a debate that divides Americans and shows little hope of being resolved. Nothing could be further from the truth; an overwhelming number of Americans support stem cell research, which politicians would know if they bothered to actually listen to them. It is time to abandon the old stem cell debate, fueled by a small but vocal minority, and begin focusing on the debate Americans want to have about how this research should be conducted.

Public opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. In a recent poll of Americans nationwide, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC), a non-partisan research institution, found that 67% of Americans approve of ESC research. This level of support was largely consistent regardless of sex, race, age, political affiliation and religion – the only exceptions were fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, yet 50% of them also supported the research.

Strong support for ESC research is also evident in largely Republican areas. Republican pollster Fred Steeper found that voters in Kansas support ESC research and oppose banning research using the therapeutic cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) by more than a 2:1 margin (pdf). These results hold even after voters are exposed to arguments for and against these types of research. In Missouri, voters favor a ballot initiative to allow ESC research and SCNT by the same 2:1 margin.

Despite the widespread and bipartisan support for stem cell research, politicians have been slow to hear the message. Missouri’s Republican Senator Jim Talent finally withdrew his four year support and co-sponsorship of Senator Sam Brownback’s proposed legislation to ban all forms of human cloning, including SCNT. Talent has still been criticized, however, for not supporting SCNT, but instead supporting an alternative method of stem cell creation called Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT). Unlike SCNT, which creates an embryo that is genetically identical to the patient, ANT would in theory produce an embryo-like entity that cannot develop into a fetus. Pursuing this method, however, further complicates research with little appreciative gain; it is unclear why creating a defective embryo artifact is better than using SCNT to create one which will never be implanted. Republican Michael Steele, who is running for Senate in 2006, also landed himself in trouble in his home state of Maryland – where 60% of people support stem cell research – for comparing stem cell researchers to Nazi scientists. Steele later apologized for his statements, said that he supports ESC research as long as it is conducted in a careful manner, and forced his campaign manager to resign.

There is little reason for these political problems stemming from ESC research; politicians should simply listen to their constituencies. Most people not only support ESC research, but also want federal policies that are more encouraging to research – in the Genetics and Public Policy Center poll, 59% of people wanted more permissive federal research policies than currently existed. President Bush’s policy to limit federal funds for stem cell research, and his desire to ban SCNT, are out of step with the American public’s more nuanced views. People want to protect embryos, but they also want to pursue ESC research – 60% of people support pursuing research over protecting embryos. This is not to say that people do not care about protecting embryos; they still place a high moral value on embryos that reflects their potential to develop into human life, but people also understand the tremendous benefits of ESC research. With the support of millions of Americans, as well as Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist and Democrats like Patrick Leahy and Edward Kennedy, stem cell research is truly a bipartisan issue.

There are still many issues surrounding stem cell research, but not the issues politicians have been addressing. Rather than debate the merits of stem cell research and SCNT, which people overwhelmingly support, or attempt to further delay ESC research by requiring scientists to pursue backdoor techniques like ANT, politicians should wade into the true debate over ESC research standards and practices. People support ESC research, but they want this research pursued effectively, efficiently and ethically with an acknowledgement of an embryo’s moral value. A wonderful first step towards addressing these problems would be for the federal government to lift its funding limitations, simultaneously increasing research and providing the clear research standards which accompany federal funding. Until that time, states can use existing standards like those of the National Academy of Sciences, to make sure they address issues such as donor consent, the legitimate uses of stem cells, and proper creation and banking of stem cell lines. Politicians from both sides of the aisle should take a cue from public opinion and start debating how, and not whether, to conduct stem cell research.

Stem Cell Fact Sheet (PDF), May 26, 2006

Sam Berger is a Fellows Assistant at the Center for American Progress.