U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities


Source: PEW Research Center

Americans are more worried than enthusiastic about using gene editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood to change human capabilities

Cutting-edge biomedical technologies that could push the boundaries of human abilities may soon be available, making people’s minds sharper and their bodies stronger and healthier than ever before. But a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults shows that majorities greet the possibility of these breakthroughs with more wariness and worry than enthusiasm and hope.

Many in the general public expect continued scientific and technological innovation, broadly speaking, to bring helpful change to society. Yet when people are queried about the potential use of emerging technologies for “human enhancement,” their attitudes are not nearly as affirming.

The survey examines public attitudes about the potential use of three emerging technologies that could fundamentally improve people’s health, cognitive abilities or physical capacities. The specific examples were: gene editing to give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of serious disease, implanting brain chips to give people a much improved ability to concentrate and process information and transfusing of synthetic blood to give people much greater speed, strength and stamina. These are just three of many enhancements that scientists and bioethicists say could arise from biomedical technologies now under development. None of the three are currently available for the purpose of enhancing otherwise healthy babies or adults, though all are in a research and development phase or are being tested in very limited circumstances for therapeutic uses, such as helping patients to recover from a stroke or spinal cord injury. (For background see “Human Enhancement: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection.”)

When Americans are questioned about the prospect of these specific kinds of enhancements for healthy people, their views are cautious and often resistant:

  • Majorities of U.S. adults say they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing (68%), brain chips (69%) and synthetic blood (63%), while no more than half say they would be enthusiastic about each of these developments. Some people say they would be both enthusiastic and worried, but, overall, concern outpaces excitement.
  • More say they would not want enhancements of their brains and their blood (66% and 63%, respectively) than say they would want them (32% and 35%). U.S. adults are closely split on the question of whether they would want gene editing to help prevent diseases for their babies (48% would, 50% would not).
  • At least seven-in-ten adults predict each of these new technologies will become available before they have been fully tested or understood. Some 73% say this about gene editing, while an identical share says the same about synthetic blood; 74% says this about brain chip implants.
  • Majorities say these enhancements could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots. For instance, 73% believe inequality will increase if brain chips become available because initially they will be obtainable only by the wealthy.
  • In addition, many Americans think recipients of enhancements will feel superior to those who have not received them; 63% say this about synthetic blood transfusions in particular. By the same token, but more optimistically, half of Americans or more think recipients of enhancements will feel more confident about themselves.
  • Substantial shares say they are not sure whether these interventions are morally acceptable. But among those who express an opinion, more people say brain and blood enhancements would be morally unacceptable than say they are acceptable.
  • More adults say the downsides of brain and blood enhancements would outweigh the benefits for society than vice versa. Americans are a bit more positive about the possibility of gene editing to reduce disease; 36% think it will have more benefits than downsides, while 28% think it will have more downsides than benefits.
  • Opinion is closely divided when it comes to the fundamental question of whether these potential developments are “meddling with nature” and cross a line that should not be crossed, or whether they are “no different” from other ways that humans have tried to better themselves over time.

The survey data show several patterns surrounding Americans’ wariness about these developments. First, there are strong differences in views about using these technologies for enhancement depending on how religious people are. In general, the most religious are the most wary about potential enhancements. For example, those who score high on a three-item index of religious commitment1 are more likely than those who are lower in religious commitment to say all three types of enhancement – gene editing to give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of disease, brain chip implants to give people much improved cognitive abilities and transfusions with synthetic blood to give people much improved physical capacities – would be meddling with nature and crossing a line that should not be crossed. Americans who have lower levels of religious commitment are more inclined to see the potential use of these techniques as just the continuation of a centuries-old quest by humans to try to better themselves.

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