Public Opinion and the Embryo Debates

Published July 1, 2008

The New Atlantis, Spring 2008

Our political debates about stem cell research in recent years have stood in a peculiar relation to public opinion. Rather than seek to marshal public sentiment, or even quite build public support, all sides have wanted to claim a preexisting bedrock of widely shared attitudes backing their favored policy outcome. “By the latest poll,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Cal.) told her colleagues on the Senate floor in 2006, “72 percent of Americans support stem cell research.” Her colleague Senator Sam Brownback (R.-Kans.), meanwhile, argued in the same debate that a large majority of Americans oppose all human cloning. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research argues that seven in ten Americans want to eliminate restrictions on public funding of embryonic stem cell research, while the Conference of Catholic Bishops points to a poll showing six in ten oppose such funding altogether.

In all of these scenarios, the American public is taken to be moved by clear and strong opinions on the vexed questions of stem cell research, human cloning, and related practices just past the horizon. But attempts to actually study these views, and to pin down the meaning of the large majorities cited by the various parties to the political arguments, have been vanishingly rare. With very few exceptions (such as admirable efforts by the Genetics and Public Policy Center and the Virginia Commonwealth University), most polls on these issues have involved bare and solitary yes or no questions, and have neglected to dig beneath the most superficial of responses.

To improve upon these surveys is, it turns out, no easy task, because the greatest barrier to a clear understanding of public views is not the absence of clear questions, but the absence of clear views. Those pollsters who do seek a more thorough understanding of public attitudes find a marked lack of knowledge of the basic facts and even an acknowledgment of that ignorance–resulting in uncertain and highly malleable opinions. 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. In the absence of that premise, 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.

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