Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Americans Still Oppose "Playing God" With Genetics

The public is clearly concerned about "unforeseen dangers."

A YouGov/Huffington Post poll on the use of genetic technologies provides a necessary corrective to excessive techno-enthusiasm. The public is clearly aware of the possibility of "breakthroughs" ahead but also concerned about "unforeseen dangers":

Which comes closest to your opinion about scientific research on human, plant and animal DNA?

I worry that this research poses unforeseen dangers – 11%
I'm excited that this research could lead to major scientific breakthroughs – 38%
Both of these – 33%
Neither – 6%
Not sure – 12%

This suggests that a solid majority (71%) is generically hopeful about biotechnology, but 44% are worried. When the questions get more specific, however, the concerns become significantly greater:

Would you approve or disapprove of scientists using DNA and cloning technology to bring woolly mammoths and other extinct species back to life?

Strongly/somewhat approve – 27%
Strongly/somewhat disapprove – 55%

Would you approve or disapprove of scientists using research on human DNA to produce children with unusually high intelligence or other special attributes?

Strongly/somewhat approve – 16%
Strongly/somewhat disapprove – 72%

How worried are you, if at all, that scientific research into human or animal DNA might lead to scientists "playing god" with things that should remain outside the realm of science?

Very/somewhat worried – 72%
Not very/not at all worried – 19%

Also worth noting (full details are here) is that strong disapproval, especially of "producing" high-intelligence children, far outweighs the weaker response; and mild support is more common than stronger. The distribution skews toward concern.

There is not a great difference among demographic groups, though older people tend to disapprove more than the young (who may of course change their minds), women more than men, Republicans more than Democrats, and Midwesterners more than those from the coasts. Even on cloning extinct species, no group reaches more than 40% approval (the highest is people from families with six-figure incomes).

All this is consistent with the polls that the Center for Genetics and Society has been collecting and tracking for many years (several date back to the early 1990s), on a variety of related subjects, mostly about US public opinion, but including some other countries:

  • This page includes polls on human genetics, specifically reproductive cloning, research cloning and inheritable genetic modification. Some of the polls are particularly useful because they show trends over time, notably Gallup, which has asked about the moral acceptability of human reproductive cloning every year since 2001 (answers range from 83 to 90% disapproval).
  • This page focuses on animals, including pet cloning and extinct and endangered species. Again, Gallup has surveyed on animal cloning every year since 2001, with 59 to 68% calling it "morally wrong."

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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