Strong religious commitments lead to less support for changing a baby's DNA, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. But people of faith aren't the only ones who have concerns about the emerging technology of gene editing.
More than half of U.S. adults (54 percent) believe it's "very likely" gene editing will be used in morally unacceptable ways, Pew reported. Fifty-eight percent say it's very likely that inequality will increase with these technological advancements, since only wealthy parents may be able to afford treatments to alter a child's genes before birth to eliminate disease or enhance physical or mental attributes.
"As people think about a future with possible widespread use of gene editing to change a baby's genetic makeup, more anticipate negative than positive effects on society," researchers noted.
Scientists have called for public input on gene editing as they develop the technology, asking parents and faith leaders about what worries them about this medical advancement, as the Deseret News reported in 2016.
Many religious believers wonder if altering a baby's DNA represents "playing God" and worry about what dramatic cures for some children would mean for the families who don't have access to advanced treatments, noted Ted Peters, co-editor of the journal "Theology and Science," in the article.
"If we end up with a culture that is pressing for perfection, (people will) have disdain for the children who are born less than perfect," he said. Religion reminds us that "culture needs to constantly celebrate all human beings, regardless of their perfection or their potential."
The new survey showed that religious commitment, gender and science knowledge all affect how Americans respond to gene editing. Highly religious adults, women and people with low science knowledge are less likely than other Americans to support it, regardless of the context.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans who pray daily, attend religious services at least weekly and describe religion as a very important part of their lives said it's appropriate to use gene editing to treat a serious disease that a baby would have at birth, compared with 82 percent of Americans with low religious commitment.
Just 13 percent of women supported gene editing to boost intelligence, compared with 24 percent of men, Pew reported.
There's also a large gap between adults with different levels of science knowledge, which Pew determined using a nine-item index. Half of adults with low science knowledge (49 percent) support using gene editing to treat a disease that may not affect a baby until adulthood, compared with 71 percent of those with high knowledge.
The survey was conducted from April 23 to May 6 among 2,537 adults. The margin of error for the full sample is 2.8 percentage points.
Pew's survey anticipates and asks about treatment options that are not yet available to expectant parents. Gene editing technologies are rapidly advancing, but field trials have been slowed by widespread concerns about the moral implications of adjusting an embryo's DNA.
Gene editing "has been held back by the fact that the National Institutes of Health, the main funding source for most research scientists in America, will not finance gene editing studies on human embryos," The Huffington Post reported.
Religious Americans are particularly concerned about scientific testing on viable embryos, according to the survey. Compared with 65 percent of all U.S. adults, 78 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics say this testing would involve "taking medical technology too far."
The promise of gene editing is that it could one day eliminate certain conditions altogether. Diseases like cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs, which are linked to specific genetic mutations, could be addressed in the womb.
"Genetic mutations that cause birth defects or increase disease risk may one day be repaired in every cell, delivering a complete and thorough cure," according to The Huffington Post.
However, the uncertainty about how researchers and doctors will draw the line to separate appropriate uses of gene editing from inappropriate ones is a concern for both religious and nonreligious Americans.
Scientists are aware of gene editing's mixed reputation, and they've been proactive about meeting with community leaders to discuss ethical guidelines. For example, researchers, students and parents circled up in Salt Lake City in October 2017 to discuss the issue.
"There's an element of fear about this technology. It gets to this notion of control over life," said Dr. Jeffrey Botkin, chief of the division of medical ethics and humanities in the department of internal medicine at the University of Utah, at the time.
Majorities of Americans welcome that control when it prevents diseases that would dramatically shorten a child's life or lead to long-term suffering. Nearly three-quarters of adults (72 percent) say it would be appropriate to use gene editing to prevent early-onset conditions, and 60 percent say the same about diseases that wouldn't affect a child until adulthood.
However, only 1 in 5 adults (19 percent) support a genetic shift that would boost intelligence.
"A majority of Americans support the idea of using gene editing with the goal of delivering direct health benefits for babies," Pew reported. "At the same time, a majority considers the use of such techniques to boost a baby's intelligence something that takes technology 'too far.'"