April 9, 2002

Public Makes Distinctions on Genetic Research

Conducted in association with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Introduction and Summary

The public draws clear lines in assessing complex issues raised by genetic technologies. Americans are united in opposition to human cloning ­ by more than four-to-one (77%-17%), they reject scientific experimentation in this area. There is far less agreement on the question of stem cell research. Half of those who have been paying at least some attention to the issue favor government funding for stem cell research, but a substantial minority (35%) are opposed. By a narrower margin (47%-39%), those who have been paying attention say conducting stem cell research is more important than not destroying the potential life of embryos involved in such research.

The nationwide survey of 2,002 adults by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that support for federal funding of stem cell research has eroded somewhat since last August. Among all respondents, regardless of whether they have heard anything about the issue, 43% back federal funding for this research, compared with 55% who expressed that view in a Gallup poll from last August.

Equally important, there are key differences in the strength of opinion, with the stem cell opponents holding a decided edge. Nearly half (46%) of those who believe it is more important to conduct stem cell research, despite its potential for destroying embryos, say they could imagine changing their minds on this issue. By contrast, stem cell opponents ­ largely driven by their deep religious beliefs ­ are more committed to their positions. Fewer than a quarter (23%) say they could see themselves changing their minds and taking the view that medical cures arising from stem cell research are more important than the potential life of human embryos.

Religious commitment is the most important factor influencing attitudes of opponents of stem cell research. While white evangelical Protestants stand out as the group most opposed to federal funding for stem cell research, this opposition is largely limited to highly-committed white evangelical Protestants, who oppose federally-funded stem cell research by three-to-one (58%-19%).1

In contrast to the divisions over stem cell research, more than seven-in-ten in every religious group oppose experimentation into human cloning. Moreover, the opposition largely arises from moral objections, not concerns over the safety of cloning. While white evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to cite moral concerns, majorities in every group base their opposition to cloning on the belief that it is morally wrong. Even seculars, who oppose research on the cloning of human beings by 56%-33%, are more influenced by moral beliefs than by safety concerns.

College Grads Favor Stem Cell Research

People with high levels of religious commitment are less supportive of federal funding for stem cell research than are those with weaker religious commitment. Aside from white evangelical Protestants, this pattern is most striking among African-Americans. Blacks in general support federal funding in this area, but highly-committed religious African-Americans are opposed (48%-39%).

Aside from religion, political conservatives and those with the least formal education are most likely to oppose stem cell research. Nearly two-thirds of college graduates think the government should fund stem cell research, while just a quarter disagree. But among people who did not complete high school, just 35% favor government funding for stem cell research, while 46% are opposed.

And while 69% of liberals favor government funding for stem cell research, just 38% of political conservatives agree. Despite the overwhelming ideological differences on the issue, however, there is only a modest partisan gap. Republicans are divided on stem cell funding (45% in favor vs. 41% opposed). Democrats are slightly more supportive (55%-31%).

Supporters Cite Media, Education

The vast majority of those who support government funding of stem cell research are influenced by what they have seen in the media (42%) or their education (28%). Religion plays a relatively minor role in shaping the views of supporters ­ just 5% cite it as having the biggest influence on their thinking.

By contrast, 37% of those who think the government should not fund stem cell research cite religious beliefs as their biggest influence. This is particularly the case among white evangelical Protestants, fully 55% of whom explain their opposition to stem cell research in terms of their religious beliefs. Just 31% and 27% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, respectively, cite religious beliefs in explaining their opposition to stem cell funding.

Unmovable Opposition

Though almost evenly divided overall, there is a significant disparity in how firmly Americans favor or oppose stem cell research. Overall, 43% say that conducting stem cell research that might result in new medical cures is more important than protecting human embryos involved with this research. However, nearly half (46%) of those who feel this way also say they can imagine themselves placing a higher priority on not destroying the potential life of human embryos.

Among the 38% who already believe that protecting the potential life of human embryos is more important than medical research on stem cells, fully two-thirds say they cannot imagine changing their minds on this issue, and just 23% say they could see themselves ever thinking that discovering medical cures from stem cell research is more important.

No to Cloning Research

The majority of people oppose research on human cloning on moral grounds. Overall, 55% of Americans oppose cloning research because they see it as morally wrong, compared with just 15% who frame their objections in terms of the science not being safe enough. Put in other terms, nearly three-quarters of those who oppose cloning research object on moral grounds.

White evangelical Protestants, 88% of whom oppose cloning experimentation, are the most likely to explain their opposition in moral terms. Moral opposition is also highest among women, older Americans, and those with no more than a high school diploma.

Cite this publication: “Public Makes Distinctions on Genetic Research.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 9, 2002) http://www.people-press.org/2002/04/09/public-makes-distinctions-on-genetic-research/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. "Evangelical" Protestants are those who think of themselves as born again or evangelical Christians. "Mainline" Protestants are those who do not think of themselves in these terms.