The Corner

New Stem-Cell Poll

Here’s David Espo of AP: “Republicans who dissent from President Bush’s policy are circulating a poll designed to show they have the party’s voters on their side even if many fellow GOP lawmakers are not.”

He highlights the poll’s finding that 57 percent of 800 Republicans polled favored embryonic stem-cell research while only 40 percent opposed. Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican pushing for expanded funding of the research and for allowing research on cloned embryos, tells Espo: “Anytime you see a poll like that, that’s a strong preference. Members of Congress understand polls.”

Members of Congress, one hopes, also understand the limitations of polls–and of the ways interested parties like Castle can spin them. Here are some specific things they ought to understand:

– The 57-40 percent support for embryonic stem-cell research does not indicate where public opinion stands on taxpayer funding or on cloning–the positions Castle favors. Dave Winston, who conducted the poll, tells me that these numbers, while interesting, do not reflect the policy question.

– When asked their preference, 25 percent of Republicans said they wanted no government funding of the research, 33 percent favored the limited funding Bush offers, and 36 percent wanted expanded funding to cover research on leftover embryos at fertility clinics. So 58 percent of Republicans were with Bush or to his right, while only 36 percent were with Castle (and even that’s with a question that arguably hypes the potential of the research).

– Another finding: 70 percent of Republicans approved of the job Bush was doing on stem cells.

– The 57-40 result came after respondents were exposed to 3 arguments for embryonic stem-cell research and 2 against it. I respect Winston’s polling, and there are judgment calls on which arguments to select, but I think the ones he used tend to drive the numbers up artificially.

The argument that adult stem cell research is promising and does not involve ethical problems, and should therefore be pursued first, is the chief argument of the congressional opponents of the research. (I’m not find of this argument myself, but there’s no denying it’s the top one opponents are using.) Yet it’s not one of the arguments presented to respondents.

Respondents are, however, presented with the argument that “fertility treatments should not be permitted” because they create embryos that will eventually be destroyed. Almost nobody is arguing for that position, it’s an unpopular position, and it’s only tangentially related to the policy question actually before the Congress.

– Respondents were asked, understandably given the politics though somewhat oddly as an abstract matter, about what they thought about the promise of various lines of research. Sixty-nice percent thought that embryonic stem-cell research might generate medical advances. But when asked which avenue of research held the most promise, only 24 percent picked embryonic stem-cell research. Another 21 percent said adult stem-cell research, 31 percent said cord-blood stem-cell research, and 24 percent said (as I would have) that they didn’t know.

These numbers aren’t terrific for pro-lifers, but they’re not the slam-dunk for Castle’s side of this debate that he (and the Associated Press) would have us believe.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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