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What’s the public to make of debate?

When scientists, religious leaders and ethical thinkers who have spent years studying the question are nowhere near agreeing on what to do about embryonic stem cell research, what is the average American to make of it all?

The most recent major public opinion on the subject, conducted in late April by The Washington Post and ABC News, found Americans supporting research on stem cells taken from human embryos by 63 percent to 28 percent — more than 2 to 1. Such levels of support have been consistent for nearly two years.

Surveys also consistently show that the more respondents know about the details, the more likely they are to support embryonic cell research, said Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University who studies science, religion and the media.

“For most people, on this issue, it does seem that the ‘yuck’ factor does apply, so regardless of a person’s religious affiliation, if they’ve heard nothing about this idea of scientists’ doing experiments on embryos, their initial gut reaction is: ‘No, this doesn’t make sense,’” Nisbet said in an interview. “... But for most Americans, the more they hear about the medicine and the potential benefits, it overcomes their initial gut reaction.”

What we don’t know

But that assessment is complicated, said Nisbet, who has reviewed more than 150 surveys of public opinion on stem cell research and related issues of human cloning. When surveyed about their actual knowledge of the issue, Americans “score pretty low,” he said.

Stem cell science is so new that most Americans never learned about it in school, so what they know is what they learn from the mass media. Moreover, much of the data come from surveys conducted by activist organizations, whichh have a political stake in the results, and some of it is tainted by questionable polling techniques and hype about the science.

“This is all coming home to roost,” said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director for pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The public as a whole still doesn’t know much about the issue and is confused by the exaggerated claims that continue to come out.”

Still, when people are informed about the science, legitimate polls show that they tend to back it.

Since the issue first came forcefully to people’s attention in the lead-up to Bush’s policy announcement in 2001, supporters of embryonic stem cell research have “really coalesced around the issue,” Nisbet said. “They’ve become very well organized, they’ve raised a lot of money and they’ve spent a lot of resources getting their message out, and those efforts — combined with a series of focusing events in 2004, with the death of Ronald Reagan and the death of Christopher Reeve — really gave them an advantage in media coverage.”

Opponents tend to react based on religious convictions, and their effectiveness can be diluted by the number of battles religious conservatives choose to fight. When it came time to counter embryonic stem cell research, Nisbet said, opponents “got hijacked by gay marriage.”

You can’t just follow your gut

For Americans who don’t follow the debate closely, deciding what to think can be especially complicated because the issue isn’t necessarily one that can be resolved intellectually.

“I think you have a deep, very puzzling question made only more puzzling by the fact that embryos outside the body are just strange,” said Eric Cohen, director of the Biotechnology and American Democracy Program for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “What do we make of these beings?

“The average person couldn’t tell the difference between a human embryo and a chimp embryo looking under a microscope,” he added. “But moral feelings aren’t always the best guide to moral action, and I think that’s the dilemma. ...

“You’re taking the smallest thing and asking all of the biggest questions.”