Americans are both hopeful and fearful about the rapidly advancing power of scientists to manipulate human reproduction, according to a survey released Dec. 9 by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, a Johns Hopkins University effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The survey explored the knowledge and attitudes of 1,211 respondents about reproductive cloning, genetic testing, genetic modification and preferences about government regulation. "These technologies give us the power to manipulate the most personal and profound of human activities--beginning a new human life," said Kathy Hudson, director of the center. Highlights of the survey:
Most Americans (76 percent) oppose scientists working on ways to clone humans. Of those who support human cloning research, men outnumber women by more than two to one (26 percent; 11 percent).
Twenty-two percent of respondents believe a human has already been cloned, with young men most likely to believe it (31 percent).
The public draws clear distinctions between health- and nonhealth-related applications of these technologies. Two-thirds of respondents approve of using reproductive genetic testing to help parents have a baby free of a serious genetic disease. An even larger number, over 70 percent, disapprove of trying to use these technologies to identify or select traits such as strength or intelligence.
Overall, men are twice as likely as women to be highly supportive of reproductive genetic technologies (25 percent; 12 percent).
Most respondents think the government should regulate the quality and safety of reproductive genetic technologies and limit human reproductive cloning. Notably, the majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents support government regulation of these technologies.
Fifty-four percent think about these technologies primarily in terms of health and safety, while 33 percent view them in religious or moral terms. Of the variables explored in the survey, this viewpoint is most strongly correlated with approval or disapproval of reproductive genetic technologies. Those who view these technologies in terms of religion and morality are more likely to disapprove of reproductive genetic technologies.
The biggest fears are that using these technologies is too much like "playing God" (34 percent), or that they can be used easily for the wrong purposes (35 percent). The greatest benefits are being able "to wipe out certain genetic diseases forever" (41 percent) and improving parents' chances that their baby will be healthy (27 percent).
The public's knowledge about these technologies is not keeping pace with the steep growth in genetic science. Only 18 percent of respondents were able to answer correctly six or more of the eight knowledge questions.
"As decision makers struggle with how to guide the development and use of these powerful technologies, the options they consider must reflect society's values and priorities," said Hudson, who is former assistant director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health.
According to Hudson, the Genetics and Public Policy Center will not advocate for particular policies but rather will provide objective, credible policy analysis and information to a wide range of professional and lay audiences. The center is already exploring the survey findings in greater detail and reaching out to scientists, religious leaders, health professionals and patients.
The project's funding of $9.9 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts is the largest grant ever made to look at the legal, social and policy implications of reproductive genetic technologies. A complete copy of the survey, which was conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates, can be found at http://www.dnapolicy.org/polls.
The Genetics and Public Policy Center is a part of the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins. Its mission is to create the environment and the tools needed by decision makers in both the private and public sectors to carefully consider and respond to the challenges and opportunities that arise from scientific advances in genetics.