April 1, 2023

Do Americans support embryo testing for complex traits like IQ?

Americans are surprisingly supportive of embryo testing for traits such as intelligence, according to an article in the leading journal Science by a group of economists and a bioethicist.

A nationwide survey showed that more than 40% would be in favour of testing for IQ with preimplantation genetic testing for polygenic risk (PGT-P) if it were available.

At the moment PGT-P is not available although one US company, Genomic Prediction, offers it as a test for possible schizophrenia and diabetes. However, the authors point out that public opinion can shift very quickly on issues related to reproduction. They point out:

Media reports of early adopters of PGT-P might suggest that it is a fringe issue unworthy of policy attention. But the sharp turn in public opinion about IVF itself shows that innovations that are initially met with limited uptake and even active resistance can quickly become normalized and widely adopted.

A 1969 Harris poll found that most Americans objected to IVF, and the American Medical Association called for a moratorium on IVF research. In 1978, 1 month after the well-publicized birth of the first IVF baby, the same poll found that over 60% supported IVF and would consider using it themselves. In our survey, 78% said they view IVF as morally acceptable or not a moral issue; only 6% said it was morally wrong.

A 2016 survey of 185 countries, including the US, found that only 18% “agreed with the use of” gene editing for intelligence, and a 2017 survey of 11 countries, again including the US, found very little intention to use gene editing to “enhance” offspring “memory and learning capacities” and little variation across countries.

Their survey asked about attitudes towards 3 ways of increasing the chance of a child entering a top-100 American college – thus setting a child up for professional and financial success. These were gene-editing (possible but not legal), PGT-P (currently not possible, but legal), and courses to prepare for SAT tests, as a non-medical alternative.

The results were fascinating. Young people and people who were better educated tended to be more accepting of gene-editing and PGT-P. People with lower educational attainment were no more likely to view gene-editing and PGT-P as morally wrong. But far more, fully two-thirds, of better-educated people believed that selecting embryos on the basis of a PGT-P score was not a moral issue or morally acceptable. About 46% of them felt the same way about gene-editing.

Veteran reporter Antonio Regalado, of MIT Technology Review, commented “Although scholastic aptitude tests for embryos aren’t being sold yet, the researchers who carried out the poll say it wouldn’t be safe to assume the technology will stay bottled up for long.”