If you read the mainstream press, you would be forgiven for believing that America is besotted with science, that only half-crazed, pro-life "extremists" have any doubts about the miracle cures that will spring any moment from embryonic stem-cell research, and that "therapeutic cloning" is the technology of the future.

According to a new opinion poll conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), you would be very wrong. Polling, of course, depends a lot on the questions you ask. So you may have seen polls quoted this way and that on these key issues. The VCU poll is generally fair. It does not bend over in either direction, and while we may wish some of the questions had been asked a little differently, its results are clear enough to turn upside down many of the assumptions of advocates for destroying embryos for research or for "therapy." Americans are much more level-headed than many editorial boards and certainly than many members of Congress.

Some of these results are so astonishing that you may not believe them—but they follow closely the results of earlier polling by VCU, so they can't be dismissed as accident and error. For example, how many Americans believe that embryonic stem-cell research "holds the greatest promise for discovering new treatments for disease, compared to other types of stem cell research?" 90 percent? 70 percent? 40 percent? 25 percent? All wrong. The answer is an almost unbelievable 14 percent. So what do the rest think?

Well, the stress that many of us have been placing on adult stem cells, which have already proven to have great therapeutic potential, seems not to have gotten through. Those who think the "greatest promise" lies here number only 7 percent. Far more have concluded that the "greatest promise" lies with "other sources, such an umbilical cord blood"—37 percent. This is a strange result, and it may indicate a conviction that "stem cell research" is the answer among people put off by destroying embryos but not familiar enough with the debate to know what an adult stem cell is (it's a very strange term).

Either way, the fact that only 14 percent are favorable to the "greatest promise" of embryonic stem cells shows that the editorialists, advocacy groups, and scientists who have pushed this down our throats for years have failed. Savvy politicians should read these numbers and ponder. They are not elected by editors and science pundits!

The clone wars
When it comes to cloning, the results are even stronger—and surprising. Cloning an embryo, of course, can yield embryonic stem cells (if the embryo is destroyed). This is what is meant by "therapeutic cloning," a dishonest term for cloning for research. A cloned embryo could also be implanted (like an in vitro embryo) and lead to a newborn child. The bioscience advocates have been trying their best to have us think of these two in quite separate categories: "therapeutic" versus "reproductive" cloning. Indeed, they try and avoid the word "cloning" altogether, and speak of "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (the technical term for cloning) "to get stem cells."

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Once again, the American public has not been taken in. According to the poll, 81 percent oppose cloning as such. If cloning is done for research on disease treatments, 51 percent are still opposed, with 43 percent in favor.

But the strangest result is this: If it is specified that the goal of the cloning research is to get embryonic stem cells, support for research cloning goes down and opposition goes up. Support drops from 43 to 34 percent, and opposition goes up from 51 to 59 percent.. This is an astonishing result, since the magic of stem cell cures has seemed to provide the ultimate justification for cloning. It may suggest that people want to support research for disease cures, but are ethically squeamish when it comes to the details if they involve destroying embryos for stem cells.

Either way, despite years of hype, the aggressive support of most editorialists, and an often contemptuous disregard for the moral scruples of those of us who have objected, the American people are far from being convinced that "therapeutic cloning" is the way of the future.

By the way, the poll also asked people about evolution and intelligent design. Just for the record, only 15 percent believed that only evolution should be taught in public schools, while 73 percent thought that either intelligent design, creationism, or a combination of them and evolution should be offered.

Alarm bells for the science establishment
It is widely assumed that Americans are uncritically "pro-science" and that possessing the most powerful technology in the world makes it hard for us to ask hard questions about where science is taking us—and what its values are. Yet, partly as a result of the aggressive pro-cloning, pro-stem-cell research, and pro-evolution views of so many scientists and their organizations, the poll reveals deep-seated ambivalence on the part of many people.

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While 85 percent believe that developments in science have helped to make society better (I wonder why that was not 100 percent; how can anyone disagree?), as many as 56 percent (versus 37 percent) agree that "scientific research doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society," and 52 percent (versus 41 percent) actually agree with the statement that "scientific research has created as many problems for society as solutions." These numbers should set alarm bells ringing in the science establishment—which is ultimately entirely dependent on two factors: public funding through the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other federal bodies; and the market for biotechnology and other products. Both of these depend on the support of the people, and well over half of them are now very skeptical of science.

And also …

In a fascinating article in the San Francisco Chronicle, science writer Carl T. Hall draws a scary connection between the movement for embryonic stem-cell research and the eugenics movement of the early 20th century in California. Eugenics was the idea, finally discredited only due to the horrors of Hitler's Germany, that we should use an animal breeding approach (including compulsory sterilization) to encourage the genetically well-endowed to have children and to discourage or prevent those with inherited genetic weaknesses from bearing children.

The full awfulness of the eugenic movement (which captured the imagination of politicians, editorialists, and liberal religious leaders alike, just as stem cells have) needs to be seen to be believed. California State University at Sacramento has pulled some of these materials together, and they are depressingly well worth reading. (If you want the full pictorial scoop on eugenics in America, the eugenics archive offers a treasure trove of disturbing images and facts.)

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

Nations United on Bioethics | But is anybody in the West reading the new declaration? (Oct. 19, 2005)
Dr. Frist's Dilemma | The Majority Leader's contradictions mirror the opinions of the public at large. (Oct. 11, 2005)
Cloning Still Haunts California | Remember Prop. 71? Stem-cell research supporters hope voters don't remember the promises they made. (Oct. 5, 2005)
Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
The Stem-Cell Conspiracy | The Washington Post muddles a major breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, while the U.K. marches blindly on. (Aug. 29, 2005)
Brave New Puppy | Introducing our new life ethics weblog. (Aug. 10, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
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