The media might present an issue as fact without verifying its truth via the appropriate channels, while the public in turn is eager to accept as fact what is presented to them, as this is much more simple than researching the issues themselves, or even simply verifying the truth of a stated fact. Furthermore, the authors hold that simply educating the public regarding issues of scientific controversy is far too simple a solution for a problem of such complexity. Indeed, the variety of opinions as mixed with fact, along with personal and social religious and moral opinion make the issue far more than one of mere cognitive understanding.
In the case of stem cell research specifically, personal, religious, and scientific opinion are also intertwined with politics, as well as either gloomy or bright predictions for a contradictory future should stem cell research be legalized. Indeed, there appears to be little hope for a homogeneous and amicable solution. There are simply too many interested parties; those who suffer from diseases; political parties whose main support is from the religious community; and the medical community who might profit from success in stem cell research all hold different stakes in the technology.
In addition to its take in stem cell technology, politics can also be said to exert considerable influence over the public opinion. Politics in the United States is indeed in itself an especially strong influence within the public. Calvari (2008) uses the example of President Bush to demonstrate this. Prior to the President's public declaration of policy regarding stem cell research, no federal funds was available for research when stem cells were derived from human embryos or fetal tissue (Calvari, 2008, p. 7). This changed during 1998, when the National Institute for Health provided guidelines that included stem cell research on embryos that were in excess at fertility clinics. Federal funding was however still absent, in waiting for a review of grant applications. This stalled the process to such a degree that it was all but terminated. Once in office, President Bush made not secret of his opinion that stem cell research on human embryos should not receive federal funding. This influenced the issue not only in the scientific community, but also in terms of public opinion.
This however created a discrepancy between scientific progress and governmental policy. The progress made by science in stem cell research, regardless of public or political opposition, required a clear statement from the President, which, according to Calvari, he provided in August 2001. In his address, the President voiced the opinion of many Americans, in that the importance of battling disease should not override the importance of the potential for life itself. President Bush hence declared his position as opposed to stem cell research that destroyed embryos. Furthermore, the President also forwarded his own religious viewpoint, which holds that life is a gift from the creator, and that destroying embryos in favor of science held particular dangers for society.
Nevertheless, the President understood the importance of compromise, and allowed funding for research on existing stem cell lines, where there is no life or death decision pending. Specifically, this meant that stem cell research was only allowed in cases where cells were provided with the informed consent of donors; derived from excess embryos created for reproductive purposes; or without financial inducements to donors.
This compromise was more than the effect of any personal opinions by President Bush. Indeed, by offering it to the public, he hoped to cater to both an opposition sector, which opposed stem cell research entirely, and a more liberal sector of the public, which hoped he would be less restrictive in his policies. In this way, it appears that the President, like many a politician, attempted to influence the public opinion of his office in terms of gaining popularity and votes rather than actively and critically considering the best course of action for the benefit of the public.
The way in which the pubic perceives political influence over scientific issues such as stem cell research. According to O'Brien, a significant proportion of the public does not believe that politicians are sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions regarding stem cell research policy. O'Brien investigated the public opinion regarding scientific as opposed to political leaders in their importance regarding decision-making on scientific issues. According to O'Brien (p. 18), a direct influencing factor on this opinion is the amount of knowledge that scientists are believed to have of scientific issues, whereas elected political leaders are perceived to be concerned more with general public issues.
When then returning to the case of President Bush above, it follows that O'Brien's research group would generally have less confidence in the President's assessment of the stem cell issue and its potential danger to the public than in the opinion of scientists.
O'Brien's findings therefore appear to indicate that the larger sector of the public believed that scientists should have more power in scientific policy making than elected political officials. And it appears that there is at least some merit in this opinion; public opinions of the Bush decision regarding stem cell research revealed a widely-held opinion that it was far too strict and that it restricted the benefits that such research could hold for the well-being of humanity.
O'Brien makes no absolute conclusions, but emphasizes that there should be considerable future work in the area not only of the benefits of stem cell research, but also in terms of the public opinion, and its dynamic as related to political leadership. Indeed, much research is still needed before the true benefits and potential dangers of stem cell therapy will be known. Authors and critics alike tend to be cautious in terms of making predictions. However, existing progress remains undeniable: stem cell therapy can have great benefits for those who suffer from previously incurable conditions. This in itself should serve the urge towards further research and development.
In conclusion, no amount of political, moral or religious debate can deny the fact that stem cell research has enormous potential for the future of human health. Forman (2008, p. 86) gives a good summary of the current lack of certainty, emphasizing that many moral and religious questions remain at the center of the issue. There is for example the question of "playing God" -- is it appropriate for human beings to use the very foundations of life to experiment for the improvement of existing life? On the other hand, the author asks whether this is not indeed a God-given responsibility. If scientists have the knowledge, for example to use stem cell technology, should they not use it for the benefit of humankind?
On the other hand, it is not simply an issue of morality, religion, or God's relationship with the human mind. There are also issues of money and corruption inherent in the possibilities opened up by stem cell research. Unscrupulous politicians and even physicians may for example use the results of research for personal gain, rather than for the improvement of humanity, which would be the ideal aim. As Forman (p. 87) points out, moral, religious, political and scientific issues all concomitantly work to complicate the research itself.
Perhaps then there is little wonder in the fact that more progress has not yet been made with stem cell research. On the other hand, an increasing amount of approval has been indicated by researchers. Soon perhaps, human beings will be able to experience the enormous benefits of stem cell research without too much worry about their immortal souls. Indeed, all forms of science at one time or another was at the center of moral, religious and political debate. It appears then that its full acceptance by biomedical researchers and finally by the public will only be a question of time.
Calvari, a. (2008). Governing the Nation, Leading the Party: The Party Politics of President Bush's Actions on Stem Cell Research. Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.
Dahmen, N.S. And Lundy, L. A Question of Ethics: Comparing Framing of Stem Cell Research in Evangelical and Mainstream News Media. Manship School of Mass Communication, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
Forman, L. (2008). Stem Cell Research. Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company.
Liu, H. And Priest, S. (2007). Understanding Public Support for Stem Cell Research: Media Communication, Interpersonal Communication and Trust in Key Actors. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, DC.
O'Brien, T.L. Scientists, Elected Officials, and Science-Based Policy: The Cases of Global Warming and Stem Cell Research. Indiana University, Bloomington.
Stem Cell Research Basics. (2010) K.U. Medical Center. Retrieved on June 1, 2010 at http://www.kumc.edu/stemcell/intro.html
Pecorino L. (2010). Stem Cells for Cell-Based Therapies. Actionbioscience.org. Retrieved on June 01, 2010 from http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/pecorino2.html
Rogal, G. (2009). Religious Fundamentalism and Stem Cell Research: The 2006 Missouri Stem Cell Initiative. Midwest Political Science Association: Annual Meeting. Chicago, IL.