According to the survey, Britons are less enthusiastic about using the technology to prevent milder diseases such as asthma, with only 36% in favour; perceptions vary widely by age.
Younger generations are far more in favor of “designer babies” than older generations, with 38% of 16- to 24-year-olds and 31% of 25- to 34-year-olds supporting the use of gene editing that lets parents choose their child’s height, eye and hair color, etc. feature.
Genome editing of embryos used for pregnancy is illegal in the UK and many other countries, but those restrictions could be lifted if research shows the technology can safely prevent serious disease.
Genome editing has been hailed as a potential game changer in dealing with a range of inherited diseases, including cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, as well as Tay-Sachs disease, a rare disease that gradually destroys the nervous system. In principle, the faulty genes that cause these diseases could be rewritten in IVF embryos, allowing those embryos to develop into healthy babies.
Despite the tremendous progress the field has made, work is still needed to perfect genome editing and ensure that it does not cause unintended changes to DNA. Because the editing will take place in the embryo, the altered DNA will affect every cell in the child’s body and may be passed on to offspring.
In 2018, researcher He Jiankui drew global condemnation when he announced he was trying to edit the genomes of two baby girls in hopes of making them immune to HIV. He was later jailed for violating medical regulations. The uproar led to an international committee convened by the Royal Society and others that concluded that genome editing is far from ready for clinical use.
In a report on the findings, the PET said that if genome editing is to be used in medicine, it must be done in a “scientifically and ethically rigorous manner.”
What is “shocking”, the authors say, is that young people are more willing to accept preferred traits for human genome editing, such as eye and hair color. “These points deserve attention, but we should continue to prioritize medical needs first,” they wrote.
John Harris, emeritus professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said he supported parents having “the greatest possible choice” in choosing their children’s physical characteristics, if those characteristics were not inherently harmful.
He said: “I don’t think it’s wrong in principle to design features in our children that are harmless or better than the original, if possible. There’s nothing wrong with wishing for a girl with brown eyes, So how can it be wrong to implement that desire if you have the ability? We’re ready to yell eugenics when people want to exercise innocent preferences.”
According to a nationally representative survey of 2,233 UK adults, two-thirds believe the NHS should offer fertility treatment for infertility and people who want to conceive, but the report notes that access to free IVF remains a “postcode” Lucky Medical”. Support was highest for heterosexual couples without children, at 49%, while only 19% favoured NHS fertility treatment for single or transgender people.
“It is disappointing that despite sexism being illegal in the UK, attitudes towards family structure remain traditional,” said Professor Alison Murdoch, chair of the British Fertility Society. “The better news, though, is that most people don’t seem to be against IVF – a major change from 40 years ago. IVF is now a routine procedure, so why isn’t the NHS giving everyone a chance? ?”