Do Americans Favor Gene Editing? It Depends

August 10, 2018
Do Americans Favor Gene Editing? It Depends
Source: masterSergeant/Getty Images

Julianna LeMieux, Ph.D.

Three-quarters of Americans favor the use of gene editing to help treat a serious health condition, but their approval of other uses including reducing the likelihood of disease or to improve intelligence are significantly lower. These are the findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center entitled “Public Views of Gene Editing for Babies Depend on How It Would Be Used.”

Marnie Gelbart, Ph.D., is the Director of Programs at the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd,) which has a mission to increase awareness and conversation about the benefits and ethical, legal, and social implications of personal genetics. She tells Clinical OMICs that these types of studies are important to show how nuanced people’s perspectives are when it comes to genetic editing.

However, Gelbart notes that "what these data do not capture is the fluidity in how people think about these issues." During pgEd workshops, where people engage in discussions on the same issues sampled in this survey, she notes that “many people really wrestle with these issues.”

For example, many Americans (72%) say that changing an unborn baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease or condition is an appropriate use of medical technology. Twenty seven percent feel that this is taking medical technology too far.

When the question shifts slightly to reducing the risk of a serious condition, the number of people saying that it is appropriate drops to 60% with 38% saying it would be taking technology too far.

Where the acceptance of gene editing seems to shift is in making a baby more intelligent, with only 19% of people saying that this is an appropriate use of technology and the vast majority (80%) saying that this is taking it too far.

Similarly, many people (65%) said that it would be taking medical technology too far if the development of gene editing involved testing on human embryos, something that experts indicate is probably necessary.

The data come from 2,537 responses, which were further separated based on religious commitment, gender, levels of science knowledge and familiarity with gene editing.

Gelbart has seen the results of this study play out in rooms across the country. Some of the work that pgEd does is to open up conversations about gene editing in different communities. She explains that, ultimately, where people fall within these different categories of comfort with gene editing depends on how they are applying their values to the information.

In order to see that in the survey, one needs to look no further than the religious commitment breakdown. Those people with a high level of religious commitment, defined as attending religious services at least weekly, praying at least daily and saying that religion is very important in their lives, are less inclined than those with either medium or low levels of religious commitment to say that gene editing is an appropriate use of medical technology.

Of those high in religious commitment, 46% say that gene editing is appropriate to reduce a baby’s risk of disease later in life. However, 73% of people low in religious commitment say that gene editing is appropriate for the same reason. Those numbers are 57% and 82% for treating a serious disease or condition the baby would have at birth.

Not surprisingly, a large number (87%) of those who are highly religious do not think that it is appropriate to use human embryos to test gene editing whereas 55% of those with a low religious commitment consider it appropriate. These differences when stratified for  religiosity tend to persist even when the data are controlled for other factors such as gender, race and ethnicity, age, and education.

In other findings, men are slightly more accepting than women of altering a baby’s genetic makeup for any reason (about 10 points higher in any category queried.) In addition, people who fell into the category of “high in science knowledge” (upon completing a nine-question index,) were more accepting of gene editing for babies. Some 86% of those with high science knowledge believe it is appropriate to use gene editing to treat a congenital disorder, compared with 58% of those with low science knowledge. This same trend was seen for people who report familiarity with gene editing, as being more inclined to see it as appropriate.

A second finding of the study was in the perception of gene editing, with more people anticipating negative rather than positive effects on society, something that did not surprise Gelbart. She frequently hears the concerns of people in communities of vastly different socioeconomic status. She adds, “given that healthcare is not uniformally distributed, how will gene editing layer on top of existing disparities?”  

A majority of people (58%) think that gene editing will increase inequality because it will be available to the wealthy. In addition, 54% of people think that even if it is used appropriately by some, others will use it in morally unacceptable ways. Also, 46% of people think that gene editing will be used before we fully understand how they affect people’s health. Women were, in general, more pessimistic than men and people who are more familiar with gene editing we more likely to be positive.

Gelbart adds that surveys like this one are useful to demonstrate the range of opinions out there and can be instructive on what course to take as gene editing enters the clinics. And, looking ahead to that moment is important to think about now. Genetics seems to enter into people’s lives at vulnerable moments. Preparing people for it may be the key to its success.