Americans have some really mixed feelings about editing human embryos

Curing diseases is mostly fine, but increasing intelligence? That's another story.
The new DNA splicing tool, CRISPR, got a lot of coverage this year, including its own joke hashtag. Nishimasu et al, 2014
crispr gene editing
Americans are okay with gene editing human embryos, as long as the tweak will cure a harmful genetic disease the baby is destined to get. Screenshot; video by McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

We’ve reached the point in scientific and technological advancement that editing our own genomes, or those of humans not yet born, is no longer a reference to a science fiction film. In the past several years, scientists have discovered new mechanisms through which we can tweak, alter, and fix faulty genes in our DNA. We could even tweak ones to suit our personal preferences, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but simply because we can. The question has now shifted from could we do it to should we do it? And the latter is perhaps just as difficult to consider as the former.

But public opinion matters, too. And according to a recent poll taken by the Pew Research Foundation this past May, the American public is okay, on the whole with gene editing human embryos, as long as the tweak will cure a harmful genetic disease the baby is destined to get.

Gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9—colloquially known as CRISPR—and others continue to push the boundaries of human capabilities, showing that we can now directly edit our own genome. Since its discovery, researchers have been attempting to understand, experiment with, and perfect these techniques, but it’s already one of the fastest, cheapest, and most precise ways to edit genes.

For now, the scientific community in the United States and in many countries around the world has kept a tight grip on the technology, holding in the reigns to ensure we know as much as possible about gene editing and its consequences before we attempt it on humans. Even with this caution, though, researchers have escalated fast. CRISPR’s ability to edit human DNA was only discovered in the past decade. But just last year, scientists at Oregon Health and Sciences University used CRISPR on viable human embryos to edit out a gene for a certain type of inherited heart disease, though none of them went on to pregnancy.

Though controversial, many researchers believe experiments like these, and others done in non-viable embryos, will help scientists to better understand the CRISPR mechanism, which in turn will help them to perform the technique with fewer mistakes. The ramifications for those errors could be huge. Edit the genes inside a person’s somatic cells (those outside the reproductive cell line) and those edits only show up in that individual. But edit reproductive cells like eggs, sperm, or embryos—collectively known as germline cells—and those edits carry on to every generation that follows.

It’s no wonder then that scientists are proceeding with extreme caution. But eventually, the science will be ready, and we’ll want to know what we’re comfortable with.

On the whole, most Americans—72 percent of us—already support editing the genome of soon-to-be-born human embryos to fix a genetic disease the baby is sure to have. They were far less keen on using a gene editing technique to increase a baby’s intelligence, saying that this would be taking the technology too far. The survey was conducted in April and May of this year, and included a nationwide, representative sample of 2,537 U.S. adults.

While most Americans agreed that genetic, pre-destined illnesses and ailments were okay to edit out, people were less settled on diseases with more nuance. 60 percent say gene editing would be appropriate to reduce an individual’s risk of developing a disease of their lifetime, but 38 percent say that was taking medical technology too far. And for something less necessary, like increasing a baby’s intelligence, we were far more wary. Just 19 percent thought that would be an appropriate use of the technology.

So far, the technique is almost exclusively being studied in diseases that a baby is destined to have, but less straightforward genetic issues aren’t out of the realm of possibilities. We don’t yet fully understand how certain genes make us more susceptible to diseases like Alzheimer’s, or how sets of genes combine to contribute to intelligence, yet should we learn enough about the genetic underpinnings many people might like to change them.

Many Americans are already wary of uses like this. 58 percent say gene editing will probably lead to inequality, since it will likely only be available to the wealthy. And about half of Americans, 54 percent, see the technique in general as a “slippery slope”—even if most people use it appropriately, there will always be some small percentage of people who will not.

Many researchers and doctors see gene editing as the way to treat all diseases—from specific genetic ones to cancer. But the general public disagrees: Only 18 percent say that’s a likely outcome. That’s arguably because, in reality, we are not even close to that stage yet, and researchers also don’t yet have a vision for how gene editing will play into diseases that don’t have a simple genetic cause. Huntington’s disease, for instance, traces back to a single faulty gene—that would be an easy fix. It’s not yet clear how we’d prevent or cure something like Alzheimer’s disease, which has some known genetic contributors but is the product of a complex system of genes and proteins interacting.

Interestingly, men were more accepting of editing an embryo than women were (65 percent versus 54 percent of women). Those who considered themselves highly religious were torn, with about half saying gene editing embryos is good, and the other half calling it too far. The majority of Americans who claimed no or low religious affiliation and commitment—73 percent—say it is an appropriate use of the technology.

Americans who had high levels of scientific knowledge and education, were also more likely to to deem it appropriate. 86 percent say embryo editing is okay for both a congenital (genetic) disorder and as a means to reduce the risk of develop a disease later in life. People without that same science background felt the opposite.

Perhaps, then, the best takeaway is that as a country we need to fund to education just as much as we need grants for studying gene editing. Scientists are pushing the field forward every day, and at some point we will all be faced with these ethical issues. We can invest in better education now so that in the future we can at least be prepared to make an informed decision.