by Lisa Sardinia & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n an increasingly polarized society, one of the most polarizing issues is embryonic stem cell research. The most harmful consequence of this division is that the issue is posed as a binary choice. The public is forced to join one of two camps. One side states that obtaining stem cells from an embryo is tantamount to murder; the other asserts that preventing embryonic stem cell research denies legions life-saving medical treatment. The public feels forced to choose one of these extreme viewpoints, even if neither choice really reflects their personal beliefs.

Many people feel unqualified to construct, or even discuss, public policy on this issue; the subject seems too technical and too complex, the science incomprehensible. The consequence of this impression is the effective disenfranchisement of the majority of the American public. This situation is particularly unfortunate because the scientific knowledge necessary to engage in a meaningful conversation about the ethical and social considerations of embryonic stem cell research is well within the ability of nearly everyone.

Learning the definitions of just a few key terms and understanding some very basic principles would allow lay people to become part of the decision-making process. The only tricky part is finding unbiased explanations of early embryonic development, as well as an impartial analysis of the potential for use of embryonic stem cells in treating admittedly devastating medical conditions. Although challenging, it is possible to educate oneself on this issue and join in the public debate.

Given the rift in the country over abortion, it is not surprising that the mere mention of embryonic stem cell research triggers a visceral response in many people. Even on the subject of abortion, however, public opinion polls suggest that many people find themselves in a quandary when attempting to determine the moral status of an early embryo. When that status is juxtaposed against the hope of a cure for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease or diabetes, the quandary appears unsolvable.

I contend that it is incumbent upon the general public to participate in sustained, thoughtful conversation with the goal of developing workable public policy. Churches and community and service groups (such as the American Association of University Women and Rotary and Kiwanis clubs) should initiate programming to provide members with both basic education and a safe space in which to explore these difficult ethical issues. Institutes of higher education should sponsor town halls and seminar series that bring together experts and the general public to discuss this critical issue.

The consequence of failing to engage in this important public discussion is to surrender the decision to elected officials -- who have shown themselves to be unable to develop any coherent public policy. Although currently it is impossible to use federal funds to conduct embryonic stem cell research, there are hardly any regulations regarding privately funded stem cell research.

We need to cut through the rhetoric, have thoughtful discussions about embryonic stem cell research and demand reasonable policy-making efforts by our elected officials.

Lisa Sardinia, Ph.D., J.D., is an associate professor of biology at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., will lecture on "The Stem Cell Debate: Science Ethics and Public Policy" on Thursday, April 6, at 7 pm in Whitworth's Science Auditorium.

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