Survey: Majority supports embryonic stem cell research

With both major party presidential candidates vowing to ease federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and important scientific advances widely reported in the media, a University study shows a majority of the public supports this type of research.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents support "medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos," and a smaller majority, 54 percent, believe the current lines of embryonic stem cells approved by President Bush for federal funding are not adequate for research needs.

The U-M study asked 498 respondents to the monthly random digit dial Survey of Consumers, carried out by the Survey Research Center, about the sources and usefulness of stem cells and their support for stem cell research. The results show that public misperceptions about stem cell research persist even though 69 percent of respondents reported reading or hearing about such research a great deal or some of the time.

"Although public support for embryonic stem cell research continues to increase, more information and education are needed about how these cells are derived and how they are used," says Eleanor Singer, research professor emerita at the Institute for Social Research, the world's largest academic survey and research organization.

A majority of respondents (54 percent) correctly identified the source of embryonic stem cells as leftover human embryos from fertility clinics, but more than 65 percent believed that stem cells from amniotic fluid and cord blood would produce the same scientific results as embryonic stem cells.

While most respondents correctly identified embryonic stem cells as derived from embryos left over from fertility clinics, nearly 40 percent thought aborted human fetuses could also be sources for such cells, and 39 percent thought cloned human embryos could be used for this purpose.

In fact, embryonic stem cells used for research come from only one source — the inner cell mass from embryos produced in excess of those needed for fertility treatments and donated for medical research.

About 49 percent of respondents knew that the embryos used for research were approximately as large as a period at the end of a printed sentence, and more than 61 percent knew that the embryos have no distinguishing features such as heart, brain or other human organ.

The public exhibited confusion about laws governing the disposition of leftover embryos from fertility clinics. More than 44 percent believed research using embryos that otherwise would be destroyed is prohibited in all 50 states, but only a few states, including Michigan, prohibit such use.

A similar question, about whether fertility clinics legally can discard leftover embryos, was answered incorrectly by nearly 43 percent. In all but one state, Louisiana, embryos may be discarded from fertility clinics as medical waste. In Michigan, leftover embryos are legally discarded.