State voters back stem cell funding

Support for embryonic research is widespread

The Sun Poll


Maryland voters overwhelmingly support state funding for embryonic stem cell research, a new poll for The Sun shows, with growing numbers of Republicans backing the controversial science, whose opponents argue that the embryos destroyed in the process are human lives.

The poll also reveals that voters believe education is the most important problem facing the state, whereas other high-profile issues - such as slots and social services - are of lesser concern.

Republicans favor state funding of embryonic stem cell research, 48 percent to 40 percent. That's up from an April Sun poll that showed 42 percent of Republicans in favor and 44 percent opposed.

In the latest survey, 67 percent of Democrats support funding embryonic stem cell research and 21 percent are against it. In April, 71 percent of Democrats backed the funding and 18 percent opposed it.

Overall, 60 percent of Maryland voters now favor funding the research, 27 percent oppose it and 13 percent are not sure.

The Sun telephone poll of 1,008 likely voters was conducted between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1. It has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the nonpartisan, independent Bethesda firm that conducted the Sun poll, sees the shift among Republicans as significant and not typical of how national party voters feel about the issue. He also attributes the gain in support among Republicans to a lack of organized opposition to the issue in Maryland.

"For the most part, there's been a coming together of very disparate interests to support it, especially on economic development grounds," Haller said.

Last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he would support embryonic stem cell research, though he hasn't said yet whether he'd be willing to commit state money to the cause. Haller said Ehrlich might be wisely reading his electorate in advance of what's bound to be a tough campaign for re-election in 2006.

"There's not a better issue to solidify his moderate image," Haller said.

Scientists say that embryonic stem cells, which can be reproduced into any of the body's more than 200 cell types, could help treat or even cure a number of debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But opponents of the process, which requires the destruction of an embryo, view it as inhumane and liken it to abortion.

President Bush approved federal funding for stem cell research in 2001 but only for a small number of existing stem cell lines. Advocates of the research have appealed to federal lawmakers for funding for new lines. They say the ones in existence and funded by Bush's proposal lack genetic diversity and are inadequate.

As the debate has raged on the federal level, states have taken up the issue of funding the research themselves. California has taken the lead, backing a $3 billion proposal to be spent over 10 years. Meanwhile, Maryland legislators, lacking support from the governor, let a funding bill die in the state Senate last session.

Susan O'Brien, executive director of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, said she hopes the polling data help convince Maryland lawmakers and the governor that voters want to see research dollars committed to this issue.

"It just demonstrates how important this is to every Marylander, no matter where they live, no matter what their party, no matter what their religion is," she said.

The most bountiful support for embryonic stem cell research is in Montgomery County, where 70 percent would back a state funding measure. Though still strong, there's slightly less support in Baltimore County, 63 percent, and Baltimore City, 54 percent.

Jean Carper, a Rockville Democrat and 43-year-old telecommunications analyst who voted twice for President Bush, said she supports state funding for the research.

"I just think that they could solve a lot of problems with different diseases if they did" fund it, Carper said.

Robert Baynes, a Baltimore County Democrat and retired nurseryman, said he believes such research is immoral.

"I don't think we should use people parts for experiments," Baynes, 77, said. "There's probably a lot of good behind it, but I'm not convinced of it. Being a Christian, I guess, makes me feel that way."

Nearly a quarter of statewide voters rank education as the state's most crucial challenge. And 29 percent of Baltimore voters say education is the foremost issue that the governor and General Assembly should tackle.

Education leads the next choice for top issue, traffic and transportation, by more than 2 to 1 statewide.

"Education permeates as a major, substantive concern across the state," Haller said. "It is especially acute in Baltimore City and Prince George's [County]."

The poll reflects a particular interest in education among Democratic primary voters, helping to explain why both 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidates - Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - have made education central to their campaigns so early in the race.

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