A new Pew Research Center poll reports that majorities of Americans are opposed to allowing others to use various technologies that could enhance human health and capabilities. The poll finds that 50 percent would oppose using gene editing to give babies much reduced disease risk; 66 percent are against allowing people to use a brain chip that would offer much improved cognitive abilities; and 63 percent would forbid the use of synthetic blood to provide much improved physical abilities. My first reaction on hearing these results is: What is wrong with you people?
As annoying as they are, I don't take these Luddite sentiments too seriously. There was much the same public reaction to the dreaded test-tube babies in the 1960s and 1970s. As I report in my 2010 article, "From Yuck to Yippee!," a 1969 Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." Congress even considered outlawing IVF. Yet, just one month after the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Joy Brown, the Gallup poll reported that 60 percent of Americans approved of in vitro fertilization and more than half would consider using it if they were infertile. By 2013, another Pew poll found that nearly 80 percent of Americans have no problem with using IVF. The same thing will happen with these technologies when they are shown to be safe and effective.
During my radio interview, AirTalk host Larry Mantle focused on the "ethical" concerns that seem to motivate public opposition. Naturally, one of the main fears is that rich people would further exacerbate socioeconomic inequality by using these technologies to benefit themselves and their families. I counter that the costs of these technologies will fall and they will become widely available. Two of them—brain chips and booster blood—could notionally be provided to anyone who wants to use them—and they can be removed if an individual decides later for some reason they would prefer to "go natural."
With regard to gene-editing babies to reduce their risk of disease—what person wants to be less healthy? Just as we assume consent for fetal surgery to correct malformations, we can also assume consent to gene-editing to fix genetic traits associated with the higher risk of disease.
The Pew folks also conducted several focus groups to try to get handle on what might be motivating opposition to these technologies. The focus groups included a lot of religious believers and a couple of my favorite responses were:
"That's always a sticking point with technology and advancements in medicine. … There are those who don't believe you should be touching what God has created. If God wanted you to be sharp in the mind … then you would have been born that way. That's the thought of some religious people. But, I'm probably in that category where the Lord gave people the ability to come up with a way to help you [and it's OK to take advantage of that]." – a 52-year black evangelical Protestant man in Atlanta.
"Just because you have faith in God, does it make you not go have your gallbladder [or] your tonsils taken out? I mean, people do things every day to lengthen their life and to be healthier." – 50-year-old Hispanic evangelical Protestant woman in Phoenix.
Back in 2010, I concluded:
We are still in the yuck phase when it comes to the public's thinking about impending advances in reproductive technologies that will enable parents to endow their children with genes and epigenetic combinations that will improve their health, lengthen their lives, boost their intelligence, and strengthen their bodies. But sometime in this century, when these technological interventions become safe and effective, yuck will turn as quickly to yippee as the response to those test tube babies did 32 years ago.
That's still true.
For more discussion of this Pew poll, click on the link to the Airtalk radio program.