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Christians more likely to oppose gene editing, Pew finds

NASHVILLE (BP) — Christians are more likely than others to oppose embryonic gene editing to reduce the risk of disease in their babies, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted a year before the latest breakthrough in genetic engineering.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) Pew described as “highly religious” would not want gene therapy for their babies, Pew found in the study conducted in March, 2016. Conversely, only 36 percent of those considered least religious would reject such therapy for their offspring, Pew said. Three-quarters of atheists and 67 percent of agnostics would accept the therapy.

The Pew study is receiving a second look after scientists successfully edited human genes to correct a potentially fatal heart defect in embryos created from donated eggs. The groundbreaking successful use of the CRISPR-Cas9 in human embryos opens the door to eventually protecting future generations from hereditary illnesses, according to research published in the Aug. 2 issue of the medical journal Nature.

Scientists already use gene editing technology in such areas as agriculture and drug development, Sci-Tech Today wrote in an Aug. 6 article. But the first successful gene editing in human embryos renews ethical, moral and safety concerns.

Scientists have also used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and cloning to advance the possibility of transplanting organs from pigs to humans, the journal Science reported Thursday (Aug. 10). Harvard University geneticist George Church, who led the pig-to-human organ transplant experiments, said the first of such procedures could occur within two years.

Pew has conducted polls on the issue of embryonic gene editing since 2014.

In its latest study, Pew polled respondents’ views on the potential use of gene editing to enhance people’s health, particularly by reducing the probability of disease over a person’s lifetime. Pew polled respondents after presenting them with the following scenario:

“New developments in genetics and gene-editing techniques are making it possible to treat some diseases and conditions by modifying a person’s genes. In the future, gene-editing techniques could be used for any newborn, by changing the DNA of the embryo before it is born, and giving that baby a much reduced risk of serious diseases and conditions over his or her lifetime. Any changes to a baby’s genetic makeup could be passed on to future generations if they later have children, and over the long term this could change the genetic characteristics of the population.”

The general population of adults was about evenly divided on the use of gene editing in their children, Pew said, with 50 percent rejecting it and 48 percent choosing the procedure. The rejection rate rose to 59 percent when limited to parents of minors; but 53 percent of parents with no children under 18 were in favor of gene editing. Results do not equal 100 in various categories because respondents who didn’t answer are not listed.

Gene editing became less favorable for 54 percent of respondents if scientists used human embryos as test subjects in developing gene editing techniques, Pew found. For those with a high religious commitment, such testing was unacceptable to two-thirds of respondents.

In its research, Pew defined the highly religious as those who said religion was “very important” in their lives, and said they attended religious services weekly and prayed daily.

New biomedical developments sometimes gain favor as they become more commonplace, Cary Funk, Pew’s director of science and society research, said in an Aug. 8 article at pewresearch.org. She listed in vitro fertilization as a classic example of acceptance, juxtaposed to nontherapeutic human cloning that remains unpopular.

See Baptist Press’ earlier story on the ethical implications of gene editing.