After the news earlier this week about a new technology that can remove a single cell from an embryo without destroying it, the response has been, to my surprise, somewhat muted. Today, however, a Newsweek article announces that, despite the potential of this technology to remove the major moral argument against embryonic stem cell research, the poll numbers on the issue haven't really changed:
The announcement this week sounded momentous. Scientists said they had developed a new method of generating stem cells that, unlike previous techniques, wouldn’t destroy human embryos. If the innovation stands up to scrutiny, it could eliminate the main rationale for objecting to such research. So in the wake of the news, you might think public opinion on the issue would shift. Not so. According to the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, 48 percent of respondents favor federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, while 40 percent oppose it. That’s little different from the results of an October 2004 poll, taken in the heat of a presidential campaign, which found that 50 percent of registered voters favored the research and 36 percent opposed it.
What has changed is the primary explanation offered by those who oppose stem-cell research. In 2004, 58 percent of these respondents cited moral or religious concerns, while 37 percent said it was “not a good use of public money.” In the new poll, however, only 46 percent mention moral or religious objections, compared to 49 percent who oppose such a use of public funds. Among those who favor the research, the primary explanation remained the same. In the 2004 poll, 21 percent said they know someone with a disease that might benefit from stem-cell research, and 75 percent cited their support for scientific progress generally. The results in the new poll were 21 percent and 77 percent, respectively.
Though the article doesn't offer much by way of analysis as to why this announcement hasn't changed much, it offers this clue:
Support for stem-cell research is higher among those who believe they’re knowledgeable about the issue. According to the poll, just 26 percent of Americans claim they understand issues like stem-cell research and in vitro fertilization “very well.” Another 49 percent say they understand these issues “somewhat well,” and 24 percent concede that they don’t understand the issue “too well” or “at all well.” Those who believe they have a firmer grasp of the issues tend to be more supportive of the procedures. Among respondents who think they have at least somewhat of an understanding, 53 percent support federal funding for the research, while 40 percent oppose it. By contrast, those with not too much understanding or none at all split 34 percent in favor and 40 percent against. Differences according to education level exist as well. While college graduates support funding by a 64-32 percent margin, those with high school education or less oppose funding by a 46-38 percent margin.
I suspect that the real reason people oppose stem cell research has very little to do with the details of the procedure. For many, it amounts to an instinctive opposition to doing anything to an embryo. (This, of course, leaves them free to ignore that many of the similar procedures are already done to embryos by the hundreds and thousands every year in in vitro fertilization clinics!). It doesn't matter how safe the procedure is for the embryo itself. Their base line principle is: Don't ever do anything to any embryo. Ever! And while I don't doubt the moral passion that motivates this position, the fact is that it that's the position you hold, you have nothing to offer the stem cell debate, which assumes at least the possibility of overcoming the impasse. The position of stem cell research's most inveterate opponents (including, alas, the President), makes them irrelevant to the debate in the long term, though in the short term, we do have to contend with the reality that they hold the purse strings on this research.
Interestingly, I ran this new procedure by a colleague of mine a few days ago, and mentioned the position taken by the National Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops. He saw right away that their position was based on some really bad science, and then offered a better objection -- According to Catholic teaching, you can't perform a medical procedure on someone without their consent unless it can be shone to offer some direct material benefit to that person. Since Catholic teaching sees an embryo as a person, and since an embryo can't consent to having any cells removed, and since the removal of the cell wouldn't not directly benefit the embryo, it can't be sanctioned under Catholic doctrine.
My response was this: Well, that's a much more morally sophisticated objection, and it's too bad it's not the one the NCCB offered. Mind you, I don't buy it, but it's a considerably better argument.