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The New Partisan Divide in Public Opinion about Stem Cell Research

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

January 9, 2006

It is still too early to gauge any public opinion fallout from the Korean stem cell scandal. The event is potentially important since the most extreme research opponents have long claimed that scientists can’t be trusted, that they are driven by profit motive and fame, and that they violate basic ethical rules to advance their own agendas. Some critics have even alleged that embryonic stem cell research is “junk science”.

Before last month, it was easy to dismiss these critics, with their claims argued almost exclusively at conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Fox News. However, the Korean scandal provides for the first time real-life fodder for the grist mill of stem cell opponents. No matter how isolated and unrepresentative, the events lend momentum to a re-framing of stem cell research into a debate about scientific fraud and untrustworthy scientists.

One of the key variables to watch in understanding the public impact of the Korean stem cell scandal will be the amount of media attention the controversy generates beyond just the elite news organizations. According to Lexis-Nexis archives, in the month of December, the Korean scandal was featured in 15 articles (3 on the front page) at the New York Times, and 6 articles (3 on the front page) at the Washington Post. At National Public Radio, 7 stories appeared on either Morning Edition or All Things Considered, and the scandal was a topic of discussion on three consecutive weeks of NPR’s Science Friday.

Despite this attention at the elite national outlets, in my search of Lexis-Nexis and various Web sites I find that smaller regional and local papers devoted only an average of 3-5 stories to the topic. At the TV news networks, the scandal was barely mentioned. At CBS, there was one story on the Early Show, but no coverage on CBS Evening News. At ABC, there was one story carried by Good Morning America, but no reporting on the topic on World News Tonight. At NBC, there was one report at the Today Show and one report on NBC Nightly News.

Though it may be too early to measure the impact of the Korean events, accumulated poll data from 2005 reveals a new troubling dimension to public opinion. Last year, in the weeks following the Presidential election, I detailed an apparent paradox: In a campaign that was allegedly defined by voter preference for “moral values,” aggregate public opinion had shifted to slight majority support for embryonic stem cell research.

But in 2005, polls show that the gains in public support for embryonic stem cell research have occurred almost exclusively among Democrats and religious moderates, while Republicans, white evangelical Protestants, and church-going Catholics remain anchored in their opposition. In fact, it is likely that the 2004 Kerry campaign catalyzed a divide between Democrats and Republicans on the issue, as public opinion about embryonic stem cell research now appears for the first time to split relatively cleanly along traditional party lines.

According to data from the Pew Center for the People and the Press, in December 2004, 56% of surveyed respondents said it was more important to conduct embryonic stem cell research than to protect embryos, an increase over 43% in 2002. Yet among Evangelical Protestants, only 33% said it was more important to conduct research, compared to 69% of non-Evangelical Protestants. More revealing, however, are the changes over time within these groups. According to the Pew data, since 2002, there has been a +18% change among non-Evangelical Protestants, but only a +7% change among Evangelicals.

In other representations of public opinion, Gallup polling (Newport, 2005) indicates that estimates of the moral acceptability of research among Catholics varies significantly by level of commitment, with only 37% of weekly church-going Catholics answering that research was morally acceptable compared to 58% of Catholics who attend church nearly every week or monthly, and 68% of Catholics who seldom or never attend church.

The Pew survey taken in December 2004 also shows a major gulf between Republicans and Democrats in their evaluations of stem cell research. Among Democrats, 68% answered it was more important to conduct stem cell research that might result in medical cures than to not destroy human embryos. In comparison, only 45% of Republicans and 58% of Independents said it was more important to conduct stem cell research. There are also important differences in how opinion shifted since 2002 across these groups. The percentage shift among Democrats was +23% compared to only a +7% change among Republicans and a +9% change among Independents.

The Pew findings do get somewhat more encouraging when examining moderate/liberal Republicans. In the December survey, within this group, 55% said it was more important to conduct research, compared to 40% of their conservative Republican counterparts, a difference in public opinion that reflects the conflict in Congress between many conservative and moderate GOP members.

Confirming these trends, Gallup polling over the last year also indicates a sharp partisan divergence in views about the moral acceptability of research (Carroll, 2005). In May 2002, 54% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans indicated that using stem cells obtained from human embryos was morally acceptable. In May 2003 and May 2004 the gap widened slightly, but in both years the difference remained within the margin of error for the sub-samples. Yet after the 2004 Presidential campaign, in May 2005, the partisan gap had widened to 23 points, with 72% of Democrats now indicating that stem cell research was morally acceptable while the opinion of Republicans remained relatively unchanged at 49%.

Other recent survey findings reveal that therapeutic cloning still lacks majority public support. In the September 2005 VCU Life Sciences survey, only 43% of Americans answered that they favor “using cloning technology to help medical research develop new treatments for disease,” a level equivalent to the 45% support in 2002. When asked more specifically about “using human cloning technology if it is used to create human embryos that will provide stem cells for human therapeutic purposes,” only 34% were in favor.

In conclusion, these results show that communication campaigns have moved many Democrats, non-church-goers, and moderates beyond a “yuck factor” reaction to stem cell research using spare embryos, and this shift accounts for the slight majority support in polls at the national level. Absent long term generational change in the religious and ideological views of Americans, at the Federal level, scientific institutions may be forced to re-evaluate just how well their goals ultimately match the values and policy preferences of a sizable proportion of the public. Others have argued that if and when stem cell therapies are available to the general public, support will quickly follow. In the meantime, however, perhaps the focus on funding stem cell research in science-friendly states remains a best strategy for stem cell proponents.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.