Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

The moral choice is to cure

You think people dislike Congress and the Republicans now — just wait until they finish telling the overwhelming majority of Americans that our commitment to research that could cure deadly and debilitating diseases renders us immoral. Stem-cell research emerged as an important “sleeper” issue in the last campaign. Our polling, along with every public poll, reveals that large bipartisan majorities favor it.

You think people dislike Congress and the Republicans now — just wait until they finish telling the overwhelming majority of Americans that our commitment to research that could cure deadly and debilitating diseases renders us immoral.

Stem-cell research emerged as an important “sleeper” issue in the last campaign. Our polling, along with every public poll, reveals that large bipartisan majorities favor it.

In our survey, 69 percent of voters supported stem-cell research, with more than half strongly in favor. Support cuts across party lines, as large majorities of Democrats (77 percent), independents (67 percent) and Republicans (60 percent) favor the use of these techniques.

The question asked, “As you may know, stem-cell research is being used by scientists trying to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or diabetes. It involves using destroyed embryos discarded from fertility clinics that no longer need them. Do you favor or oppose using discarded embryos to conduct stem-cell research to try to find cures for diseases such as those I mentioned?” Thus, our question provides balance by trading off the benefits of stem-cell research against having to use “destroyed” embryos.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pitted two statements about stem-cell research against each other. Opponents, the question read, “say that it crosses an ethical line by using cells from potentially viable human embryos, when this research can be done on animals or by using other types of cells.” In support was the hope for progress in curing disease. When voters were presented with these statements, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) said they agreed more with the supporters of stem-cell research, while only 22 percent said they agreed with those who opposed the research.

CBS found that 58 percent approved, while 31 percent disapproved of stem-cell research. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 63 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed. Annenberg found that 64 percent supported federal funding of stem-cell research while only 28 percent opposed it.

I cite all these polls and the question wordings to make two points. First, there is a real public consensus on this issue. Different polls with different questions all converge on the same conclusion: Americans support stem-cell research.

Second, as the question wordings make clear, respondents come to their conclusions aware of the moral issues implicated on both sides. Those on the far right cannot argue public ignorance. They are forced to argue that most of their fellow Americans are immoral.

Eric Cohen, writing in National Review, does just that. Oddly enough, his targets are not secular humanists, atheists or agnostics but Orthodox Judaism, which supports stem-cell research because “the Torah commands us to treat and cure the ill and to defeat disease. … To do this is to be the Creator’s partner in safeguarding the created. … The potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life.”

Cohen denigrates the conclusions of distinguished rabbis as “misguided” and “disingenuous” and as advocating “the full-scale dehumanization of early human life.” Cohen even criticizes those in the Orthodox community for “trampling on the moral opinions of their fellow citizens,” implying that if they disagree with the far right, Jews ought to keep their values to themselves.

The fact is that most Americans of all religions value the tradeoff differently than does the minority on the far right. We believe that the possibility of saving and enhancing the lives of actual people is more important than protecting a mass of human tissue that will, in any event, never become a life.

While I respect those whose value systems are different, in my view, it is denying cures to suffering people that is immoral. Those who purport to value life should work to preserve and enhance it.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.