When President Obama signed an executive order lifting restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research last week, he plunged headlong into the culture wars. For once, though, the wedge issue at hand is one that benefits Democrats, unlike hot buttons like abortion and gay marriage, which mostly help the GOP. "People have come to a consensus that if nobody wants these frozen embryos, they should be used in research," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "People believe that embryos are not people."
Indeed, public opinion polls show that few Americans believe that embryonic stem cell research is immoral, as many Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders insist. But that doesn't mean the controversy is over. Unanswered questions about the science surrounding stem cell research and the details of Obama's new regulations promise to yield more political battles. For instance, Obama left open the possibility of federal funds going to the creation of new embryos, rather than relying entirely on excess embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. The National Institutes of Health will now study the question. "Creating embryos expressly for research and destroying them would be more controversial," says the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's David Masci. "It has the potential to drain some public support."
For now, though, public support is solid, predicated on hopes that the research yields cures for such diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. According to a February Gallup Poll, 52 percent of Americans want fewer restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, or none at all. Recent Pew polls show that white evangelicals are the only major religious tradition in which a majority opposes the research. The Roman Catholic Church has been outspoken in its opposition, but a large majority of rank-and-file American Catholics back embryonic stem cell research.
To avoid appearing antireligion, Obama had a handful of mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders on hand for Monday's signing ceremony. The president spoke of rejecting a "false choice between sound science and moral values" and invoked his own faith to argue that "we are called . . . to ease human suffering."
At the same time, Democrats have used George W. Bush's 2001 executive order banning federal dollars for new embryonic stem cell lines to paint the GOP as antiscience. "The idea is that when Republicans see scientific evidence they don't like, like on global warming or evolution, they ignore it," says Masci.
Still, even some supporters of federally funded embryonic stem cell research acknowledge that Obama's action raises ethical concerns. The University of Pennsylvania's Caplan fears that biotechnology companies will rush into clinical trials that use modified embryonic stem cells to treat diseases and wind up hurting patients. And he worries that embryonic stem cell research will be expected to quickly yield the kind of breakthroughs that noncontroversial adult stem cell research has, even though that research has been well funded for 40 years. "It's like comparing jet engines to Orville and Wilbur's prop plane," he says. Conservative Christians will be looking for such an opening to argue that the promise of embryonic research has been oversold and to keep the political battle going.