U.S. public opinion on the future use of gene editing

Source: Pew Research Center


The potential genetic modification of humans and its ramifications have long been debated, but a recent scientific breakthrough in gene editing – a technique known as CRISPR – has raised the urgency of this conversation. In March and April of 2015, two separate groups of scientists published essays urging the scientific community to impose limits on genomic engineering, and the National Academies of Sciences, working in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, convened an international summit to discuss the science and policy of human gene editing. (For more details on these developments, see “Human Enhancement: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection.”)

Gene editing giving babies much reduced risk of serious disease

Respondents to the Pew Research Center survey read the following statement: “New developments in genetics and gene-editing techniques are making it possible to treat some diseases and conditions by modifying a person’s genes. In the future, gene-editing techniques could be used for any newborn, by changing the DNA of the embryo before it is born, and giving that baby a much reduced risk of serious diseases and conditions over his or her lifetime. Any changes to a baby’s genetic makeup could be passed on to future generations if they later have children, and over the long term this could change the genetic characteristics of the population.

The Pew Research Center survey gauged, in broad terms, what the public thinks about the potential use of gene editing to enhance people’s health, in this case by reducing the probability of disease over a person’s lifetime.11 Survey respondents were asked to consider a potential future scenario, republished in the accompanying sidebar, in which gene editing would be used to give healthy babies a much reduced risk of developing serious diseases. Gene-editing techniques are not currently being used in this way.

While many Americans say they would want to use such a technology for their own children, there is also considerable wariness when it comes to gene editing, especially among parents of minor children. Highly religious Americans are much more likely than those who are less religious to say they would not want to use gene-editing technology in their families. And, when asked about the possibility of using human embryos in the development of gene-editing techniques, a majority of adults – and two-thirds of those with high religious commitment– say this would make gene editing less acceptable to them.

This chapter focuses on these patterns and several others involving public attitudes about gene editing.

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