[ASC-media] Biotechnology Australia backgrounder: Increasing public support f or stem cell research

Young, Janine Janine.Young at biotechnology.gov.au
Mon Jul 7 10:30:06 EST 2003

7 July 2003	03/123

Increasing public support for stem cell research

Public support for stem cell use - both embryonic and adult - has risen in
Australia in the past year but support for human cloning remains very low,
according to a recent Biotechnology Australia survey.

Speaking today at the International Genetics Congress, Mr Craig Cormick,
Manager of Public Awareness for the Commonwealth Government agency
Biotechnology Australia, said Australian support for human health
applications of biotechnology was high - except for human cloning and
applications thought to be cosmetic or trivial.

"It is clear from our survey results that people support the use of stem
cells, derived from both embryonic and adult cells, in medicine and medical
research. Support for embryonic stem cell use rose from 53% in 2002 to 59%
in 2003, while support for adult stem cell use rose from 70% to 88%," Mr
Cormick said.

This support changes, however, on the topic of human cloning.

"The survey found that support for the use of stem cells does not extend to
human cloning, and this has decreased further in the last year. Human
cloning is now rated as morally unacceptable by 87% of the population,
compared with 82% in 2002," Mr Cormick said.

There is also increasing support for genetic testing of unborn children, and
then using gene therapy to correct any disorders and diseases that may be
diagnosed. Higher levels of moral acceptability were given to genetic
testing now than in 2002 (61% in 2003, compared with 54% in 2002) and
support for the correction of genetic disorders is also increasing (79% in
2003 compared with 74% in 2002). 

The greatest increase in support, however, has been for the use of gene
therapy to cure genetic diseases: the survey found 84% moral acceptability
in 2003, compared with 77% in 2002.

"While these applications received high support, there are clear
distinctions in people's minds between different genetic disorders.
Conditions that are not life-threatening or affect quality of life were less
acceptable than those that are more serious," he said.

While there was increased support for the use of gene therapy to reduce a
person's chance of getting breast cancer, heart disease or schizophrenia
compared with 2002, disapproval increased for using gene therapy to increase
a child's intelligence above normal levels or making a child of average
weight rather than being overweight. 

"The Australian public has a diversity of views on biotechnology
applications, based on risks, benefits and moral acceptability. Attitudes to
medical applications such as genetic testing, for example, are more
supportive than for GM food and crops," Mr Cormick said.

"Interestingly, you cannot simply say whether or not people accept a new
technology, you need to consider why the technology came into being and how
it is being used, in addition to who benefits from it. Then there are
ethical considerations that need to be factored in as well. Consumers are
quite sophisticated in their decision-making."

There has been an increase in both awareness and acceptance of many gene
technologies relating to human health over the past four years. In 1999,
seven in ten people said they were aware that it was possible to determine
if embryos have a genetic predisposition to serious diseases. Most people
thought it was a useful application (87%), that it was acceptable (68%) and
should be encouraged (74%). However, 57% of people acknowledged there were
some risks.

When the question was asked again in 2001, most people still believed that
genetic testing of embryos was acceptable and useful, but more people
acknowledged the risks and also began to consider what would be done with
the information. Most people felt comfortable with genetic test information
being used to inform and help prepare parents to deal with a child's future
illness, but less so if it was used to decide whether to terminate a
pregnancy. There were also concerns that the information could be misused
for cosmetic purposes.

"It is clear that the Australian community has become very discerning about
the uses of different gene technologies and distinguish between different
applications based on risk, benefit and moral acceptability."

The survey, conducted in May of this year by Market Attitude Research
Services, involved telephone interviews of 1,000 people over the age of 18
on their awareness and attitudes to biotechnology-related issues and
included a section on stem cell research, cloning and gene therapy.

For further information contact:
Craig Cormick
Manager of Public Awareness
Biotechnology Australia
Ph: 0418-963 914

CMR 03-148

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