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Shift to belief that life begins instantly

Australians are gradually moving towards the belief that embryos are human in the earliest stages of development, a survey has found.

If the shift identified in the Australian National University survey continues at the same rate, most of the next generation of Australians will consider an embryo is human from the moment of conception.

The survey, conducted between 1993 and 2001 on 7579 people, found that religious conviction had the most significant influence on beliefs about the rights of embryos.

Surprisingly, gender, age and level of education played only a small part in these beliefs.

In general, the results found Australians believed a foetus became more human the older it got. Most respondents believed a foetus became fully human between two and five months after conception.

"People who strongly endorse the basic Christian tenets see an early foetus as being much more human than non-believers do," said Jonathan Kelley, the director of the ANU's international social sciences survey.

Denomination also played a big role. Catholics were more likely to consider early embryos fully human than Protestants and non-religious people.

Those with a high level of education tended to think the foetus became human at a more advanced stage of development than those with less education; older people tended to regard foetuses as less human than younger people did; and women were more likely to perceive foetuses as being human.

But these differences were only minor, Dr Kelley said. "Religious belief is by far the dominant source of division of opinion."

Federal politicians face a conscience vote in Parliament this month on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research.

And Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, the Most Rev George Pell, will arrive home from the United States today to answer criticisms over his statement that abortion is a greater moral scandal than clerical sex abuse.

"What has been lacking in this controversial debate is systematic evidence of what the general public believes," Dr Kelley said.

International Social Science Survey | Dr Jonathan Kelley
Human life starts…? Australian public & elite divided (Universitiy of Melbourne media release 24/6/02)


2 Aug 2002