Stem Cells and Public Opinion
Giulio Cossu (Director, Stem Cell Research Institute Dibit, H. San Raffaele)
“The experience of the Italian referendum on stem cells�?
It is now approximately one year since a heated and convulse campaign on the referendum started to reach a peak of animosity and verbal violence few days before the selected date of June 11, 2005. During those months Italian TV, radio and press were literally flooded with interviews, debates and articles that together succeeded in confusing the general public and finally inducing most people not to vote. The main responsibility for these events can certainly be ascribed to the orthodox Catholic front that deliberately raised the acrimony of campaign, by comparing for examples scientists to nazist criminals able to kill millions of innocent lives. Behind this fanatic and irrational surface, a rational and winning planning had rather been defined. By discouraging all the Catholic people to vote, rather than to vote in favour of the law n° 40, it was soon clear that the chances of reaching the percentage of votes necessary for the referendum to be valid (i.e. 50% + 1) would have been minimal. In this way those who were in favour of the low n° 40 would have been added to most of the people confused by the campaign. As mentioned above very few people had clear in their mind what they were supposed to vote for or against and, moreover, the referendum specific questions were literally unintelligible. In the end, only those who had been directly hurt by the consequence of the law, i.e. infertile couples and people affected by severe and incurable diseases (with their close relatives), were motivated to vote. Even within this relative minority, Catholic people were scared and confused by the invitation of the Vatican. In this scenario, few scientists claimed that there was no need to study human embryonic stem (ES) cells because adult stem cells would have been sufficient to cure most genetic and acquired diseases, an unjustified claim given the current status of research on stem cells.
On the other hand, errors could be retrospectively identified both in the strategy and the methods of those who promoted the referendum. Although it is always easy to evaluate things after they have happened, it was easy to predict that it would have been very difficult to raise the same response for in vitro fertilization and ES research that had been raised for abortion and divorce. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that most referendum will fail in the future if the rules are not changed. With less and less people participating actively even in political elections, it will be easy for one part to invite their supporters not to vote and to be almost mathematically certain that the quorum will not be reached. Finally, although in a minority of cases, it did not help to claim in the campaign that ES cells would have cured all the diseases in a few years because we all know that this will not be the case.
As a final note I would like to underline how much work needs to be done to familiarize general public with research and researches. We, the researchers, are still described in the press as holy people dedicating their lives to find cures for the benefit of mankind and as cynical criminals who torture innocent animals for the profit of multi-national companies. It is indeed curious that hundreds of thousands of people who probably did not consider worth expressing an informed opinion on stem cell research, few months later generously donated their money to Telethon for the ever most successful Tv marathon.