National and local public opinion polls seem to be coming down in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, even among people who oppose abortion.
It's no different in Utah. In a recent Deseret News/KSL poll by Dan Jones & Associates, 69 percent of the Utah respondents said abortion should only be allowed in cases of rape, incest or when the woman's life is in danger, while 7 percent believe abortion should never be allowed.
Asked about using "extra" in-vitro-created embryos for stem-cell research, 62 percent favored it, divided equally between "strongly favor" and "somewhat favor." Only 16 percent were strongly opposed.
|Deseret News graphicStem cell researchRequires Adobe Acrobat.|
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they know what stem-cell research is; 40 percent said they don't know and 2 percent weren't sure.
Ronald D.G. MacKay, chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, called it the future of medicine. He delivered the Jerome Joseph Landa Memorial Lecture for the U. Department of Neurology on Thursday.
"Stem cells have the potential, if we treat them right, to do everything the original stem cell did," he said — the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine.
Some scientists and politicians — including Sen. Orrin Hatch — and others believe it could have a profound impact on the quality of life for people with diseases like Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's and diabetes.
But the current discussion shows that the debate over when life begins has moved sideways into a national discussion that includes where life may begin.
President Bush is wrestling with whether to allow federal funding for research that uses stem cells derived from embryos — specifically "excess" embryos developed using in-vitro fertilization that were never implanted in a womb to produce a child.
Opponents say that an embryo grown in a petri dish is a potential person and such research is appalling. They call it a pro-life issue. Proponents say the unused embryos are destined to be destroyed or left in frozen limbo when, instead, they could benefit mankind. They, too, call it a pro-life issue.
The spotlight has focused on the potential benefits to be derived from research using embryonic cells because they are "pluripotent," meaning that they can become seemingly any kind of cell found in the human body, according to MacKay.
Adult stem cells grow more slowly and may become a different kind of cell, but the potential seems to be far smaller, he said.. If scientists can figure out the "signals," an embryonic stem cell could be told what to become, he said.
Dr. Maureen Condic, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the U., holds the opposite view. Embryonic stem-cell research is a decade old, while adult stem cells are a fairly recent discovery. For where they are in the research process timeline, the adult stem-cell potential is likely even greater, she said.
Dr. Jay Jacobson, who works with medical ethics at LDS and University hospitals, believes people may not understand the issue as well as they think.
"It's not only complex but it's changing rapidly. People quickly own positions on this without complete understanding, and the issue is changing under their feet. The poor president is trying to form opinion based on one set and here comes another one."
Hatch doesn't see a disconnect between opposing abortion and supporting embryonic research. In testimony at a Senate hearing this week he called support of the "vital research" a "pro-life, pro-family position."
". . . The reality today is that each year thousands — and I am told the number may be tens of thousands — of embryos are routinely destroyed. Why shouldn't these embryos slated for destruction be used for the good of mankind?" Another LDS senator and longtime foe of abortion, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also supports the stem-cell research. While pro-life leaders have denounced both senators, pro-choice leaders see their support as a sign of wide approval for the research.
When reporters Thursday asked Bush if that support was "enough political cover on the right to make a decision in the affirmative," he reportedly replied, "It doesn't matter who's on what side. . . . This is a decision I'll make. And somehow to imply this is a political decision . . . somebody doesn't understand the full consequence of the issue. This is way beyond politics."
Among other Utah members of Congress — all of whom are LDS — only Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, favors such research. He has always been pro-choice on abortion. The other members of Utah's congressional delegation say they are undecided and still researching it.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself has not taken a stand but issued a statement earlier this month saying the issue requires "cautious scrutiny."
Sunday, the Deseret News will examine both the problems and the promise of stem-cell research
Contributing: Lee Davidson