Australian politicians are gearing up for a conscience vote on therapeutic cloning. Health minister Tony Abbott is doing his best to demonise it by raising the spectre of “human-animal hybrids” and condemning its supporters as “peddling hope”. However, it is votes, not words, which will carry the day. The trouble is, what voters feel about this complex issue is itself a matter of debate. Opinion polls in Australia’s public debate over therapeutic cloning have yielded very different results.
Back in June the respected Morgan poll claimed that 82% of Australians back the use of embryonic stem cells to treat diseases like heart failure and Alzheimer’s. Eighty per cent favoured therapeutic cloning. However, the poll tended to overstate the possibility for cures — especially Alzheimer’s, which nearly all scientists acknowledge will not be licked with stem cells. Nor did it use the words “therapeutic cloning”. Instead, the pollster described the procedure as “merging an unfertilised egg with a skin cell” without fertilisation.
From a poll commissioned by the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, which opposes therapeutic cloning, very different results emerged. About 51% of the people surveyed were opposed to “the cloning of human embryos as a source of stem cells”. When people were informed that “extracting stem cells from an embryo causes the embryo to be destroyed in the process”, support dropped from 29% to 14%.
Hence, it appears that the side which can frame the debate in its own terms will win the legislative battle. If the Australian public — which knows little about the science of embryonic stem cells — is persuaded that miracle cures are the only issue, therapeutic cloning will be legalised. If it realises that human embryos will be destroyed in the process, the outcome is far from certain.
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