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Technology optimism

Christopher Reeve’s untimely death after a courageous battle puts stem-cell research back at the center of national debate, just as Ronald Reagan’s death did a few months ago. Indeed, stem-cell research is emerging as an important “sleeper” issue in this campaign.
Christopher Reeve’s untimely death after a courageous battle puts stem-cell research back at the center of national debate, just as Ronald Reagan’s death did a few months ago. Indeed, stem-cell research is emerging as an important “sleeper” issue in this campaign.

John Kerry has long argued the moral imperative of pursuing research that can provide cures to deadly and debilitating diseases. Our own polling demonstrated that large majorities of voters stand with Sen. Kerry on this issue, including majorities of Republicans. Subsequent public polling reinforces the strong public support for stem-cell research.

In our survey, 69 percent of voters supported stem-cell research, with a majority (51 percent) saying that they support the research strongly. 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, the question asked in our survey mentions the use of “destroyed embryos,” providing a balanced item, trading off the positives of stem-cell research (i.e. finding cures to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) against the potential negatives (having to use “destroyed” embryos).

Annenberg polling, released more recently, presents nearly identical findings. In the National Annenberg Election Survey, 64 percent of voters overall supported federal funding of stem-cell research, while only 28 percent opposed it. Strong support existed across party lines, as majorities of Democrats (74 percent), independents (67 percent) and even Republicans (53 percent) favored federal funding for this type of research.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pitted two statements about stem-cell research against each other to provide an indicator of informed support. In that trial heat, an even greater percentage of voters supported stem-cell research. Indeed, when voters were presented with statements in support of and in opposition to the research, a strong majority (71 percent) said they agreed more with the supporters of stem-cell research, while only 22 percent said they agreed more with those who opposed the research.

In this poll, opponents made mention of “crossing an ethical line by using cells from potentially viable human embryos” and asserted that “this research can be done on animals or by using other types of cells.” Still, only a fifth of voters opposed the technique.

President Bush’s disingenuous response makes it clear that he feels the sting. While he now proudly declares that he was the first president to fund stem-cell research, scientists and health groups are keenly aware of the fact that the president misled the country when he announced his decision. Bush said there were sufficient stem-cell lines already being researched. There were not. Moreover, all of the stem-cell lines that Bush permits are contaminated and essentially useless.

For most people, the potential of curing deadly and debilitating diseases is a moral claim that takes precedence over the ethical issues involved in experimentation on embryos that would have been discarded in any event.

Americans are techno optimists. They believe that technology can solve almost any problem. Stem-cell research is a technology that can save lives.

By opposing the lifesaving work that it can do, Bush has put himself far outside of the American mainstream. For Bush, political appeals to the far right carry more weight.

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