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The big picture: Americans aren't gung-ho on designer babies

Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Kerrie Vila/Axios

Americans have mixed views on how far to take gene editing technology, favoring it in cases where it improves the health of their offspring, but opposing attempts to enhance a baby's intelligence, according to a new Pew Research Center survey out today.

Why it matters: As the science of gene editing nears the point where it's safe to use in humans, society will face a choice of how far is too far when using it. The prospect of so-called "designer babies" clearly rattles many, judging from the poll, but it's also unrealistic considering doctors' focus on using this technology to treat illnesses.

The big picture: Gene editing is the subject of intense research and is viewed as a possible route to treating or even preventing diseases ranging from cancer to sickle cell disease. It is also thought to be a potential way to tailor a baby's genetic makeup to favor particular traits.

Based on the poll of 2,537 U.S. adults conducted between April 23 and May 6, 2018 by the Pew Research Center, the public views gene editing for the purposes of tailoring their babies' traits with deep suspicion.

Between the lines: Americans with high levels of religious commitment are split 46% to 53% over whether it is appropriate to use gene editing to cut a baby's risk of developing a disease later in life. However, 73% of those with low levels of religious commitment think this is an appropriate use of medical technology.

  • A solid majority of 65% also said using human embryos to test gene editing would go too far.
  • The survey reveals a possible public relations challenge for people and companies involved in gene editing, since those surveyed tended to view a future where gene editing is more widely available as one with more negative outcomes compared to benefits.
  • 58% believe gene editing will lead to increased inequality, and 54% see it as a slippery slope, agreeing that "“even if gene editing is used appropriately in some cases, others will use these techniques in ways that are morally unacceptable.”
  • More men support gene editing to reduce the risk of developing a serious disease later in life, and also of using gene editing to treat a congenital disorder.

Where it stands: Interestingly, the public tends to doubt whether medical experts "fully comprehend the health consequences of gene editing," the survey finds. Just 36% of Americans believe that researchers understand the health effects of gene editing for babies very (7%) or fairly well (29%).

This skepticism may be well-founded, given that several recent studies have found potentially serious downsides to some gene editing methods.

Go deeper: CRISPR editing may cause more DNA damage than expected.