TCS Daily

Hyping Stem-Cell Politics

By Ramesh Ponnuru - August 17, 2004 12:00 AM

The campaign for expanded federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research isn't just hyping the possibility of finding cures for terrible diseases. It's also hyping the electoral benefits for politicians who sign on. The chief instrument of hype has been the biased poll. Given how big an issue embryonic stem-cell research subsidies have become, it's remarkable how little we know about public opinion on the issue.

A recent article on this website noted one old poll and two recent ones that demonstrated strong public support for the research. But anyone who has followed the debate will see the problems with these polls as soon as he follows the links.

First, there's the Harris poll in 2001 that found 61 percent support for the research. There are a number of problems with this poll: It doesn't mention that human embryos are destroyed in the process of the research, and it touts the benefits of the research for Alzheimer's disease. But the biggest flaw is that the question concerns whether embryonic stem-cell research should be "allowed." That wasn't the question in 2001, and it's not the question now. The question is to what extent the research should get federal dollars, and the Harris poll is worthless on that question.

Second, there's an Annenberg poll from this month that asks, "Do you favor or oppose Federal funding of research on diseases like Alzheimers using stem cells taken from human embryos?" The pollsters got 64 percent of the public to say they favored the funding. The poll chooses to mention one disease-Alzheimer's-and it's the very one that credible researchers have cautioned people not to expect results for. The fact that the research destroys human embryos is not mentioned.

Third, there's an Economist poll that also finds strong support for the research-but doesn't mention the fact that human embryos are destroyed in the course of it and does not ask whether people want taxpayer funding for it.

Two other polls have recently been cited-in Newsday, The New Republic, and the Washington Post-as evidence that expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is a political winner. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 71 percent support for the research, but made no distinction between allowing it and funding it and, yup, doesn't mention the destruction of human embryos.

By far the worst of the polls was an amply-publicized one done by Peter D. Hart Research Associates that found 65 percent support for increased funding. Their poll also established the "fact" that the more informed voters were, the more likely they were to support the funding. The poll treated voters as "informed" after they were told that "stem cell research offers the best hope we have today for curing such diseases as Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which today cause pain and suffering to more than 100 million Americans," and that "highly respected" organizations like the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health support the funding. The inclusion of heart disease and cancer, done to reach the figure of "100 million Americans," is outrageous. The claim about the NIH is erroneous: They are part of the Bush administration, and do not take public-policy positions contrary to it. The polling firm threw in some inaccurate information about the details of Bush's stem-cell policy, too: again, information that could be expected to boost the poll's findings of support for funding.

A recent study of the polling notes that the Catholic bishops were able to devise a poll that showed 70 percent opposition to funding. The author of the study, Matthew Nisbet, concludes: "The fact that the public can be influenced so much by how the questions are worded tells me that Americans are susceptible to be influenced by groups on both sides. It depends on who crafts a message that appeals most to the public." He also says, ""Polls show that the public doesn't know much about the science or the policy surrounding stem-cell research, and that means they really haven't solidified their opinions." Any honest student of public opinion has to acknowledge that there are often circumstances in which the public has no definite opinion about an issue.

Even on their own terms, these polls generally do not establish that people are willing to vote on the basis of their support for funding the research. No doubt there are people all over the country who have been led to believe that more taxpayer dollars for this research will end the suffering of their loved ones. Many of them will no doubt vote on the issue. But the polling tells us nothing much about their numbers. The issue will probably thus work out as a plus for the Democrats, but perhaps a modest one. If it ends up being decisive, it will be because the election is so close that every other issue that moves more than 500 people is decisive, too.

I assume that the Democrats are pushing this issue as hard as they are because they have found that it focus-groups well. When people hear that there are tremendous, "magical" benefits from research that is being blocked by a bunch of Bible-belt know-nothings, they are apt to respond favorably to the research. But White House aides are not worried about the prospect that the issue will come up during the presidential debates. If Kerry presses him on the issue, Bush can say that his policy allows private-sector stem-cell research to proceed. He can say that he supports funding for adult stem-cell research. He can say that he supports funding even for embryonic stem-cell research that meets ethical guidelines, even if his guidelines are stricter than the ones Kerry proposes. Most viewers will find that to be a reasonable and thoughtful position. Bush can then add that he strongly disagrees with Kerry on the cloning of human embryos for research purposes-an issue that might put Kerry on the defensive.

There's no getting around the fact that Democrats are excited about using the stem-cell issue, and Republicans are nervous. But if funding stem-cell research is such a great political winner, why do its advocates have to exaggerate its potential benefits so grossly? Why do they have to misrepresent Bush's policy? And why do they have to use bogus polls?


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