Observers often ask, "Where does the public stand on human biotechnology? How do people feel?"
These important questions present challenges for pollsters. Most of the technologies in question are new and often poorly understood. They engage deeply held values, but there is not yet a well-developed vocabulary for their deliberation.
Polls tend to show that public sentiment about human biotechnologies is strongly ambivalent. Most people value their potential to alleviate suffering, yet are apprehensive about the social consequences of some applications.
Views on human biotechnology are strongly shaped by cultural experiences. For example, in the United States, many people focus on the moral status of the embryo, mirroring the abortion debates of recent decades. In contrast, Germans are more likely to interpret powerful biotechnologies though their country's experience with the Holocaust.
One of the most consistent findings of opinion studies is that respondents' answers depend heavily on how questions are worded. For example, two separate surveys in the United States taken one month apart showed contradictory results: one found that 70% supported human embryonic stem cell research while the other found that 70% opposed it. Reading the questions reveals why: The study sponsored by a research advocacy group emphasized the potential for cures, whereas the one sponsored by opponents of abortion rights dwelled on destroying embryos. Thus, survey results must be carefully evaluated and put in an appropriate context.
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