Last night I reported YouGov’s findings on abortion and the use of embryos for research – today I’ll cover the rest of the poll, which examined stem-cell research, cloning, euthanasia and “designer babies”.

As you might have noticed, the stem cell question on the Telegraph’s table doesn’t make sense – the use of stem cell research in what “way” exactly? The actual YouGov question refered to scientists using cloned embryos as a source of stem cells to treat diseases such as Alzheimers, diabetes and heart disease, and asked respondents when, if ever, this was acceptable. A large majority (80%) of respondents did support scientists using stem cells from cloned embryos in some circumstances, but the majority of people qualified their support to some extent. 20% supported the use of stem cells from clones for only life threatening illnesses, a further 25% supported it for all serious illness, while another 27% supported it for all medical purposes, but not cosmetic ones. Only 7% would support the use of embryonic stem cells for cosmetic purposes.

Asked about cloning for reproductive purposes the survey suggested found a high level of opposition. 60% of people thought that reproductive cloning should be illegal for at least the foreseeable future, half of them thought it should be illegal forever. 20% thought it should be legal only for couples with infertility problems, with only 10% of respondents thinking it should be legal in general. The question specifically asked about people’s attitudes to cloning, “assuming the cloning of babies was proved safe for both the baby and the woman carrying it,” so in theory this should represent opposition above and beyond what fears respondents may have about the safety of cloning.

YouGov went on to ask about whether people felt well enough informed to make decisions about things like stem cell research and cloning: 60% of respondents said they did not. So, while respondents were mainly opposed to reproductive cloning and broadly supportive, although with caveats, towards the use of stem cells from cloned embryos, most also thought that they didn’t have enough knowledge of the subject to make informed decisions.

Moving on, the YouGov survey showed strong support for euthanasia. Asked if they thought “that people who are terminally ill should have the right to decide when they want to die and to ask for medical assistance to help them die if they are unable to end their own lives” 87% said yes, with only 6% opposed. Asked if people should be able to assist the suicides of close relatives without fear of prosecution, 67% said yes.

YouGov then asked about a number of potential negative effects were euthanasia to be legalised. Despite the previous apparant support for euthanasia, 51% of respondents thought that elderly people would feel pressured to seek euthanasia, 47% of respondents thougth it would lead to a significant number of murders disguised as euthanasia and 21% thought it would lead to worse levels of care for the terminally ill. Only 14% thought there would be no negative effects. Personally I’d have liked to see a follow up question to see if people thought the desirability of allowing people the right to seek euthanasia outweighed these negative effects or not, but there goes.

On a related subject YouGov also asked respondents if there was a “significant moral difference” between doctors ended the life of a patient in a permanent coma by withdrawing nutrition or by giving them a fatal dose of morphine (the wording of the question was carefully but so that both instances were presented as “hastening the patient’s death”). 37% of patients thought there was a moral difference, 54% thought there was no significant difference.

Finally YouGov asked about “designer babies” – i.e. modifying or screening the genetic make-up of babies before they are born in order to select specific characteristics. Respondents attitudes followed a strong pattern in these questions – about 20% of people were steadfastly opposed to any sort of designer babies, while most other respondents were in favour of genetic screening or modifications in order to prevent serious genetic disorders. Only a tiny proportion (2%) of respondents thought that genetic screening should be allowed for purposes like making children more intelligent or increasing their sporting prowess.

So far in the UK permission has been granted for at least one “designer baby” in order to provide a bone marrow match for a seriously ill sibling (although the parents have not yet managed to have another baby), and it has been suggested that selection by gender should be allowed in IVF treatment. YouGov asked about both these situations. While a majority (58%) of people supported “designer babies” to provide donors to save the life of siblings, there was very strong opposition to screening embryos by gender; 77% were opposed, with only 14% in favour.

So, as the Telegraph’s editorial yesterday said, people’s opinions on medical ethics are a bit, well, woolly. People support euthanasia, despite agreeing it might have horrible consequences. They support abortion, but would like to see it tightened up in some way. They dislike cloning, apart from for stem cells to treat illnesses, and don’t mind experimentation on embryos for medical purposes, as long as they are only “spare embryos” left over from IVF treatment.


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