Despite the active and urgent opposition of their leaders, Catholics and evangelicals support research on stem cells using human embryos, according to a new ABCNews/Beliefnet poll.

Catholics support the research 54% to 35%, and only 18% said religion was a major factor in forming their views--a finding that seems to indicate a gap between church leadership and parishioners. The Catholic Church has said embryonic stem cell research is "immoral" and added, "it is always wrong to directly destroy one innocent member of the human family to help another."

block federal funding for the procedure as a way of luring more Catholics to the Republican Party. Bush is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to support federal funding for stem cell research.

At a June 1 meeting at the White House, Bush told Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Richard Klausner, and others that he was genuinely undecided on how to proceed and urged them to craft a solution that captured the "middle ground," according to an administration official who spoke to ABCNEWS.

The poll findings could provide political cover for pro-life Republicans looking for a way to support stem cell research. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has written a letter to Bush urging him to allow it to continue. And Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who has a daughter with juvenile diabetes, and former Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., a cancer survivor, also support federal funding. They argue that destroying an embryo is not the same as an abortion.

Their statements have angered some pro-life leaders. "The senators have opened a Pandora's box that will undermine the movement they continue to say they're members of," says Gary Bauer in an accompanying Beliefnet article.

"This is a battle for George W. Bush's soul," says David Gushee, a Southern Baptist ethicist at Union University in Tennessee.

Why is there a gap between leadership and rank-and-file views?

One reason is that the debate is new and complicated, and people don't understand it. But another important reason is that many people desperately want research done to help their loved ones.

"Their compassion is well-placed, but you are not allowed to use any means necessary to pursue a good end," says Gushee.

John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, says the issue pits people's anti-abortion views with other equally strong values--and in this way, Catholics and evangelicals are similar to other Americans.

"Even people who believe life begins at conception have a fairly pragmatic view on these sorts of things," Green said. "People like to support medical research. We're always raising money to battle various ailments. And I suspect that's what's really being reflected in the poll data."

But opponents say that just because it's for a good cause doesn't change the ethics of destroying the embryo.

"To destroy an embryo for research is tantamount to abortion, but to many people it's an even more direct and cold-blooded mistreatment of life," said Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. "You don't have a conflict of rights--the unborn life pitted against the alleged needs of the mother to be free of the pregnancy. You have a researcher who wants research material, and that person is going to destroy another life."

Green said that, politically, Bush is probably better off deciding to limit stem cell research in order to appease Catholic and evangelical activists.

"Then these folks might go out and persuade the religious folks in the pews

In the poll, the same pattern apparent for Catholics also emerged for white evangelicals. Many evangelical groups--including the Christian Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Family Research Council--have come out strongly against the research and sent around urgent e-mails on the matter. Yet 50% of white evangelicals polled said they support the procedure, compared to 40% who oppose it.

Critics of stem cell research oppose using embryos to create these stem cells because, they say, the procedure amounts to killing an unborn child for research. Advocates say it can produce new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's and for spinal cord injuries. After hearing these competing views, 58% of Americans support the research, while 30% oppose it. Six in 10 say the federal government should fund it.

The findings are politically significant, in part because opponents of the research within the Bush administration have argued that the president should
More on the
Stem Cell Debate

More on the
Stem Cell Debate

  • Why Pro-Lifers Must Oppose Stem Cell Research By Gary Bauer
  • What Religious Leaders Say
  • What do you think? Discuss
  • A Stem Cell Primer
  • Stem Cell Research Links
  • More on the
    Stem Cell Debate

  • Why Pro-Lifers Must Oppose Stem Cell Research By Gary Bauer
  • What Religious Leaders Say
  • What do you think? Discuss
  • A Stem Cell Primer
  • Stem Cell Research Links
  • that they really ought to be against it," Green said. "You can imagine a lot of sermons and direct mail. But if you look at it from Bush's point of view, maybe you don't want Gary Bauer and the Catholic bishops beating up on you over an issue most people don't care about."

    The poll also asked what influence religion played on respondents' views. Though 42% of opponents listed religion as the main factor, only 18% of Catholics and 29% of white evangelicals listed religion. This would seem to indicate that religious leaders aren't having much influence on their followers.

    Doerflinger, however, disputed the way the poll questions were worded. He said the question didn't take into account two other options--besides discarding the cells or using them in research--for embryos. One option is to donate them to another woman for implantation in her womb. Another option is to simply keep the embryos in storage.

    Most Catholic and evangelical leaders support research on stem cells obtained from adult fat tissue, from miscarried fetuses, or from umbilical cords and placentas. What they object to is using stem cells obtained from frozen embryos. These embryos are created when a woman uses in-vitro fertilization methods to become pregnant. Some of the embryos are implanted into her womb, and the extra ones are frozen.

    "When the first test tube baby was born in 1978, there was some outcry and moral concern that a frontier had been crossed without adequate reflection," Gushee said. "But then mainstream voices said, 'We'll get used to this, and this is a great contribution to human happiness.' But what has developed is an unregulated industry in the manufacturing of human beings."

    Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission, called the technique "biotech cannibalism." The 15-million-member SBC passed a resolution last year objecting to "human fetal tissue trafficking," including experiments on human embryonic stem cells.

    The confusion is understandable, according to Marjorie Signer, spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national group of religious liberals who approve of embryonic stem cell research.

    "This is a huge issue for our members," she said. "We're talking about the deliberate destruction of what is potential life and what some people think is the equivalent to a walking, talking person. So there is a very hard edge to that. But of course what people don't want to talk about is they're going to be destroyed anyway."

    Last year, her group studied stem cell research, ultimately issuing a statement approving of it.

    "You weigh the morality of preserving these embryos versus the morality of using them for a potentially very great good," Signer said. "That was the morality through which we looked at it. People who are absolutists, people who are not willing to put things in a historic context, people who are literalists, are going to feel something else."

    Signer charged religious conservatives with using the stem cell issue as a fig leaf for fighting the abortion battle.

    "That's the political issue that mobilizes people, it has a huge political base you can count on, and it's an issue that says a lot of things about what's happening to society and about women's place in the family," she said.

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