What Does “the Public” Think About Heritable Genome Editing?

Biopolitical Times
Polling on enhancements

Heritable human genome editing (HGE), proponents and opponents perhaps surprisingly agree, should not proceed without public backing. In modern societies, for better or worse, opinion polls are often seen as second only to elections as the way by which we gauge what people support, what the public as a whole will accept, and where lines should be drawn on contentious issues. That is why CGS has been compiling poll results for over two decades.

All general opinion polls about complex issues are inevitably flawed. The phrasing of a question is very likely to influence responses, especially when the topic involves cutting-edge science, huge societal consequences, and deep moral convictions. Respondents may not have an in-depth or up-to-date understanding of complex issues. Polls are generally not designed to provide much in the way of context or background for their questions. And no poll can be a true substitute for democratic engagement. But well-conducted polls, taken with appropriate skepticism, can be useful pointers as to whether the public is in general agreed or deeply split on an issue.

The latest Pew Research Center research, published in March, incorporates views on artificial intelligence as well as human enhancement technologies. The brief Pew summary is that Americans regard advances in these technologies “with a degree of caution and uncertainty.” A look at the Topline pdf, which includes the details of all questions and answers, confirms this. A one-line summary of opinion on human gene editing as shown in this poll might read:

Large numbers — in some cases majorities — are optimistic about the biological results, pessimistic about the societal results, and more or less resigned to going along for the ride.

The optimism is probably exaggerated since the poll’s questions about heritable gene editing strongly imply that the technology will be precise and successful, and that at least some uses of it are widely acceptable. The questions also assume — falsely — that the phrase “serious diseases or health conditions” is unproblematic, that everyone will agree what falls into and outside that category, that all “serious conditions” should obviously be “fixed,” and that altering the genes of embryos or gametes is the best or only way to avoid passing those conditions to one’s children.

The section of the poll on heritable genome editing was introduced with this statement:

“New ways to modify a person’s genes are being developed that could make it possible to change the DNA of embryos before a baby is born in order to greatly reduce a baby’s risk of developing serious diseases or health conditions over their lifetime.”

In what follows, some questions have been omitted, but in all cases, this is the exact wording used in the poll’s questions. Note that the whole array is predicated on the word “could,” and that the term “appropriately” is not defined.

  • The widespread use of gene editing to greatly reduce a baby’s risk of developing serious diseases or health conditions over their lifetime would be a …:
    Good idea for society: 30%
    Bad idea for society: 30%
    Not sure: 39%
    No answer: <0.5%
  • If gene editing to greatly reduce a baby’s risk of developing serious diseases or health conditions over their lifetime were available, is this something you would want?
    Yes, I would definitely want this for my baby 16%
    Yes, I would probably want this for my baby 32%
    No, I would probably NOT want this for my baby 25%
    No, I would definitely NOT want this for my baby 24%
    No answer 3%
  • Even if gene editing is used appropriately in some cases, others would use these techniques in ways that are morally unacceptable:
    Definitely would happen: 45%
    Probably would happen: 39%
    Probably would NOT happen: 9%
    Definitely would NOT happen: 5%
    No answer: 2%
  • Development of these gene editing techniques would pave the way for new medical advances that benefit society as a whole:
    Definitely would happen: 16%
    Probably would happen: 51%
    Probably would NOT happen: 22%
    Definitely would NOT happen: 8%
    No answer: 3%

The whole thing is worth a look. The public is generally skeptical about all the emerging technologies the survey asked about. Here are a few more numbers, combining the percentages of “definitely” and “probably” responses: Police would use facial recognition to make false arrests (54%) and would use it to monitor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods more than others (66%); but crime would stay about the same (57%) and government will go either too far (47%) or not far enough (51%) in regulating the use of facial recognition technology. Widespread use of computer chip implants in the brain allowing people “to far more quickly and accurately process information” would be a bad idea for society (56%) and 78% of respondents would definitely or probably not want such an implant.

There are other recently published polls on heritable gene editing about which even more skepticism is appropriate. YouGov, an online market research company, has 11 million registered members globally and boasts that a study by the Pew Research Center concluded that YouGov “consistently outperforms competitors on accuracy.” Certainly their results are generally consistent over time: The question “Would Brits consider using gene editing if it could make their future children more intelligent?” elicits answers that vary by no more than four percentage points over six surveys since August 2019.

In the latest, released in February 2022, the answers were: Definitely 32%; possibly 9%; probably not 18%; definitely not 8%; don’t know 8%; and “not applicable — I am not planning on having children in the future,” which came in second with 24%. Presumably that last response was suggested by the survey, and seems inappropriate: Those who are childless by choice can and do have opinions,

One last example of how not to perform multi-national surveys was published in Agriculture and Human Values in June 2021 under the title Citizen views on genome editing: effects of species and purpose. It covered five countries, and one of the topics was deliberately based on He Jiankui’s attempt to perform HGE as a preventive for HIV. The authors explain that this was included as “a case that we thought would not be acceptable for many people,” a sort of control for the agricultural questions. In the first four countries polled, they asked for responses to:

Resistance within humans to HIV: HI-Virus (HIV) is an infection leading to AIDS that humans can contract. Using genome editing, it is possible to generate resistance to this disease in humans.

This elicited generally positive responses, which surprised the investigators, so for the fifth country they added one more sentence:

The resistance is generated in the human embryo.

Apparently this made no difference; all respondents thought that generating resistance to HIV was a good idea.

Digging a little deeper into their methodology suggests one reason not to rely too heavily on the results: Participants were recruited via “crowd-working” online platforms, usually Clickworker, spent 12 minutes on the entire survey, and earned about a dollar. According to a Google search, Clickworkers make about $8 per hour on average, and there is usually enough work available to work for at least four hours per day.

Deep thought probably is not involved in their assessments.