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Most Americans worried about genome editing, survey finds

1 August 2016
Appeared in BioNews 862

A survey has found that a majority of adults in the USA are worried about the potential use of genome-editing technologies to give children a reduced risk of disease.

The survey, carried out by Pew Research Centre, gathered the opinions of 4726 adults in the USA on using new technologies to 'enhance' human capabilities. The respondents were asked about three emerging technologies: in utero genome editing to prevent disease, increasing the mental abilities of healthy individuals via the implantation of a brain chip, and synthetic blood transfusions to increase performance.

Almost 70 percent of respondents said that they were 'very' or 'somewhat' worried about the use of genome-editing technologies to reduce a child's risk of serious disease, with around half indicating they were enthusiastic about such a use – three in ten respondents were both enthusiastic and worried.

Respondents who said they were familiar with genome editing were more likely to want it for their own child, and there was more acceptance of genome editing if people were allowed to choose which diseases would be affected. 

Fifty-four percent of adults surveyed felt that genome editing to prevent serious disease in a baby and give it the average level of health would be appropriate. However, the same amount of people felt that genome editing to make someone healthier than any existing human was crossing a line.

The researchers say this differentiation highlights a general theme in which people tend to be more comfortable with efforts to prevent, treat or cure diseases, but not with efforts to enhance 'normal' species functioning.

'It's pretty clear that thinking about these ideas in connection with helping people with medical issues is different than taking people who are otherwise healthy and enhancing their abilities,' Cary Funk, the lead researcher of the survey, said.

The survey also found that religious people are less likely to support such interventions, and that the more committed to religion someone is, the more likely they are to think that enhancement technologies are meddling with nature and 'playing god'.

As well as religion, gender also affected perceptions about these technologies. Men are more likely to be in favour of genome editing and other technologies, with 54 percent saying that they would use genome editing to reduce their child's risk of disease, compared with 43 percent of women.

However, despite the wariness of perceived enhancements highlighted by the survey, a large proportion of respondents believed that these technologies will be widely available in the near future. Forty-seven percent said they foresee a future where almost all birth defects would be avoided by the genetic modification of embryos. Many respondents also said they had mixed views about current enhancements such as cosmetic surgery.

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