Americans' support for embryonic stem cell research declines, VCU Life Sciences survey shows

Americans' support for stem cell research has declined slightly, reversing a three-year trend, but an overwhelming majority paradoxically supports the use of such cells in pursuit of treatment for themselves or family members, according to the sixth annual Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey released Thursday.

The number of Americans that supports embryonic stem cell research was 54 percent in the new survey, down from 58 percent in the 2005 survey. The poll found that in tandem with the 54 percent of Americans who support embryonic stem cell research, 37 percent strongly or somewhat oppose it, up from 32 percent last year.

The VCU Life Sciences Survey was conducted by telephone with 1,000 adults nationwide from Nov. 7 through Nov. 21. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Previous surveys have been conducted in September, and all have been conducted for VCU Life Sciences by the VCU Center for Public Policy through its Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory.

Also this year, when asked if they would support the use of embryonic stem cells in order to pursue treatment for themselves or family members afflicted with a condition such as Parkinson's Disease or a spinal cord injury, 70 percent said they would support the use of embryonic stem cells, compared with 68 percent in 2005. Twenty-one percent said they would not support the use of embryonic stem cells to treat these conditions, compared with 17 percent in 2005.

VCU polling expert David J. Urban, Ph.D., director of the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory in the Center for Public Policy, said the apparent inconsistency in survey respondents' opposition to stem cell research but their support for the technology if it would help them or a family member is the result of bringing the issue to a personal level.

"When you bring it down to a personal level and ask how it would affect them personally if they or a family member were afflicted with a particular disease, it puts the issue in a different light," he said.

Urban said the results for most every question on the survey, with the exception of opinions on embryonic stem cell research, remained consistent with the previous five years of polls. He said this year's election may have had an impact on the results of the question dealing with the type of stem cell research holding the most promise for treatment of disease, but not on the other results.

The poll also found that the number of Americans who said that research using stem cells from other sources held the greatest promise for discovering new treatments for disease fell to 25 percent from 37 percent in 2005. Embryonic stem cell research was indicated by 22 percent of the respondents for holding the greatest promise, up from 14 percent in 2005, and 17 percent believed that adult stem cell research offered the greatest promise, up from 7 percent in 2005.

Views on embryonic stem cell research continue to be related to views on abortion and religion, according to the poll.

In terms of Americans' opinions on abortion, the biggest change in the survey was among people who feel abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Seventy-seven percent of these people oppose research using stem cells from human embryos, compared with 18 percent in favor. These percentages were 64 percent and 17 percent, respectively, in 2005. The results show a corresponding reduction in the number of "don't know" and "no answer" responses between 2005 and 2006. In other words, Urban said, "people who feel abortion should always be illegal are more likely to express a definite negative view toward embryonic stem cell research this year."

By contrast, those who feel abortion should always be legal are in favor of stem cell research by a 76 to 17 percent majority, similar to the 77 to 16 percent spread in 2005.

In addition, 68 percent of people who say that religion is not an important part of their life say they are in favor of embryonic stem cell research. In contrast, 40 percent of people who say that religious beliefs provide a great deal of guidance for their day-to-day living are in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

The 2006 survey also showed that opposition to human cloning remains strong, but is softening, with 79 percent of Americans either somewhat or strongly opposed to human cloning, compared with 81 percent in 2005, and 83 percent in 2004.

Other highlights from the poll:

  • 87 percent of Americans report that developments in science have helped to make society better and 88 percent say this about new technology as well.

  • 90 percent agree that scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives.

  • 90 percent agree that new technology in medicine allows people to live longer and better.

  • 56 percent agree that scientific research doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society.

  • 51 percent say that scientific research has created as many problems for society as solutions.

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The poll and its methodology are posted online at http://www.vcu.edu/lifesci/.

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center: Virginia Commonwealth University is the largest university in Virginia and ranks among the top 100 universities in the country in sponsored research. Located on two downtown campuses in Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in nearly 200 certificate and degree programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-three of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU's 15 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the nation's leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.

Video clips:
Urban 1: "Slight decline in support for embryonic stem cell research"
Urban 2: "Not surprising for peoples' opinions to vary"
Huff 1: "Americans are still very supportive of science"
Huff 2: "Americans still negative to cloning technology"


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