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The Genetic Divide

Americans conflicted about genetic reproductive technology, survey finds

FRIDAY, Dec. 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Americans are having a tough time keeping pace with the rapidly advancing science of genetics, particularly in the area of reproductive medicine.

And, according to a new survey, opinions on the subject are divided, with many favoring the use of genetics to combat disease but not to enhance the qualities of unborn children.

The survey, conducted by Johns Hopkins University's Genetics and Public Policy Center, examined Americans' attitudes toward and knowledge of cloning, genetic testing, genetic selection and government regulations of these activities.

"Overall, the American public is supportive of health-related applications of genetics," says Kathy Hudson, director of the center. However, "using genetics to select sex or other desirable characteristics is heavily disapproved," she says.

Hudson and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,200 people from across the country. Most were white (82 percent), and the group was about equally split between the sexes. Thirty-two percent were high school graduates, while 24 percent had taken some college courses. Fifteen percent were college graduates, and another 10 percent had post-graduate degrees. Five percent had gone to technical or vocational schools and the remainder didn't finish high school.

The researchers found there are a lot of misconceptions about genetic science. Only 18 percent of the people surveyed could answer six of eight knowledge questions about reproductive genetics.

For example, the survey found that 22 percent of those polled believed a human clone had already been created, and 31 percent of young men thought there was already a human clone. While some groups have claimed to have created human clone embryos or pregnancies, there is no scientific proof to support these claims. Also, many people believe there are genetic tests currently available to test for future mental illness and IQ, which there are not.

One third of the survey participants said they feared that using reproductive genetics was too much like "playing God." One third also felt these technologies could easily be used for the wrong purposes, such as trying to select genes that would produce a child with a high IQ. An overwhelming majority (70 percent) felt genetic science should not be used to select traits such as strength or intelligence in children.

However, two-thirds of those surveyed said it was acceptable to use genetic science to make sure parents don't pass on a serious genetic disease to a baby. And 41 percent felt the greatest benefit to genetic reproductive science would be the ability to eventually wipe out certain genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis.

Twenty-seven percent said improving the chances of having a healthy baby was one of the biggest benefits to genetic science.

Men were twice as likely as women to be highly supportive of reproductive genetics.

"One of the things that surprised me most was the substantial difference between men and women in their attitudes about reproductive genetics," says Hudson. "Men are much more supportive of non-health related applications [of genetics] than women, particularly young men."

Another finding that surprised Hudson was the broad support for government regulation of genetic technologies, regardless of the survey participants' political views.

"Over 60 percent supported government regulations in this arena," Hudson says. Democrats, Republicans and independents all seemed to be equally in favor of regulations. Such across-the-board agreement is unusual in public policy issues, Hudson says.

Thomas A. Shannon, a professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., says people shouldn't be too surprised by the survey's results.

"There is a massive information gap between scientists and the public," he notes. "Science is so outpacing most people's understanding that unless you just got your Ph.D. in genetics yesterday, you won't get what's being talked about."

He says this knowledge gap becomes critical when lawmakers have to make funding decisions and devise public policy while they can't fully grasp the issue.

The other big problem Shannon sees with the lack of public understanding -- people "assume the promise is the reality." While genetic therapy for many diseases looks promising now, he says, no effective treatments have been developed using gene therapy, though people assume they have.

The only thing that's certain in genetic science today, Shannon says, is that the public debate will continue and get more complex as the science gets more precise.

What To Do

For more information on genetic counseling for expectant parents, visit Kid'sHealth. This policy paper, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, looks at the debate over stem cell research.

SOURCES: Kathy Hudson, Ph.D., director, Genetics and Public Policy Center, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.; Thomas A. Shannon, Ph.D., professor, religion and social ethics, department of humanities and arts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass.; Dec. 9, 2002, survey, Johns Hopkins University's Genetics and Public Policy Center
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