Surprising number of Americans would screen embryos for intellectual aptitude, survey says

shutterstock 1241172154 Gene editing in vitro genetic CRISPR genome engineering medical biotechnology health care concept with a fertilized human egg embryo and a group of dividing cells as a 3D illustration. Via Shutterstoc

A significant minority of Americans would favor genetic screening of embryos simply to boost their child’s chance to attend an elite university, a new survey indicates.

Several bioethics experts and economists designed the survey to explore public opinion about in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and the hypothetical genetic testing of embryos before they are implanted in the womb. The survey asked respondents whether they would test and edit an embryo’s genes to increase the chances the conceived child would grow up to attend an extremely competitive college.

The results were published in the Feb. 9 issue of Science magazine under the title “Public views on polygenic screening of embryos.” Michelle N. Meyer, a professor of bioethics with the Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, was the corresponding author.

Respondents were asked to assume that they were already doing IVF and that genetic screening of embryos or genetic editing procedures provided a free and safe way to increase their child’s chance to attend a top-100 university. Informed that the embryos had a 3% chance of getting into an elite college, they were asked whether they would opt for an intervention that would bump up their embryonic progeny’s chances to 5%.

According to the survey results, 38% of respondents said they would genetically screen IVF embryos for predicted academic achievement while 62% would not. Another 28% of respondents said they would edit the genes of IVF embryos to boost a child’s chance of acceptance at top colleges, while 72% said they would not.

The representative survey of more than 6,800 Americans was part of the January 2022 Understanding America Survey, an online panel run by the University of Southern California.

While Catholic ethics reject any use of in-vitro fertilization to conceive a child, the survey results also indicate that moral opposition to IVF is now very low among Americans. Only 6% of respondents opposed this means of conceiving a child, with 39% saying it is morally acceptable, 39% saying it is not a moral issue, and 17% unsure.

John F. Brehany, executive vice president at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA Feb. 14 that genetic screening is gravely unethical, especially due to the killing of embryos that do not meet expectations.

“The genetic screening of embryos is a sanitized form of eugenics, not different in principle from the exposure of subpar babies that took place in Roman society,” he said. “Because genetic screening takes place in Petri dishes, no one witnesses the acts of callous judgments or the death of those rejected. And so the barbarity of the practice is not appreciated.”

Soon after an embryo’s IVF conception, genetic tests can already find monogenic or single-gene traits or diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and some hereditary cancer syndromes.

However, most human traits are attributed to multiple genes and their complex interactions. Scientists are debating whether and to what extent multiple-gene “polygenic” tests can detect and evaluate the risk of cancer or heart disease or schizophrenia, as well as other traits such as height or intelligence. Some genetic screening businesses are already offering putative tests for polygenic health risks among IVF-conceived embryos, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in May 2022, though none are publicly promising the ability to screen for non-health traits like intelligence.

The survey’s hypothetical example of screening embryos to improve the likelihood of high educational success is a departure from the ordinary use of screening embryos for perceived genetic diseases.

In Brehany’s view, however, “the ethical differences are minor.”

“What is common is a eugenicist mindset and some core actions, including the discarding of human beings at the embryonic stage who fail to be chosen for gestation,” he said.

“It is difficult to cogently describe all the consequences of such practices,” Brehany said. He said some have argued that support for people with Down syndrome is undermined because genetic tests result in targeted abortion of unborn children with the chromosomal condition.

Regarding IVF, the American public once was morally skeptical. Most Americans opposed in vitro fertilization according to a 1969 Harris Poll, but in 1978, after the birth of the first baby conceived “in vitro,” over 60% supported the procedure, the Science article said.

Brehany said it is “certainly a challenge” to convince Americans and even many Catholics that in vitro fertilization is morally wrong.

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“IVF has become acceptable for several reasons,” he said. “It is a laboratory procedure in which the full implications of the immoral actions involved can be hard to appreciate. Those who suffer from infertility are desperate to overcome it. And those running the IVF clinics can draw upon everything from noble motives to effective advertising to make the practice appealing.”

Brehany said that the ethical principles behind Catholic objections to IVF include that “it separates the origins of human life from the setting designed by God — the environment of consensual, committed marital love of a man and woman.”

“There is no better place for a child to come into being and develop,” he said.

“Moreover, IVF has increasingly been separated from marriage itself — through practices such as the commercial trade in human gametes and making assisted reproduction available to non-married persons,” Brehany objected. “Once outside this supportive structure, many other considerations take precedence over the dignity of human life and love, from ‘success rates’ to costs to personal preferences.”

Brehany encouraged Catholics to work to “better understand the power of the Church’s teachings and what really takes place within and as consequences of the IVF industry.” He recommended the use of “moral imagination” to help make people more aware of the relevant ethical problems.

“In the short term, however, perhaps the most effective strategy will be to more effectively present the teachings of the Church on life, love, and fertility or infertility during marriage prep,” he told CNA.

Brehany said that Catholic teaching allows genetic editing in some cases.

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“Some genetic editing of human beings is certainly acceptable in principle, although it is still somewhat limited in practice,” he said. The Catholic Church has long defended the validity of “well-designed genetic interventions.” Among these, Brehany listed the introduction of functional copies of some genes, or the silencing of other dysfunctional genes, in the body of a person with a genetic disease.

“This would be an extension of the therapeutic mission of medicine,” he said, provided this does not turn into genetic engineering.

“The Church has rejected efforts to genetically engineer human embryos or future generations, in particular to enhance some people to have advantages over others,” he said.

In a 2022 statement, the European Society for Human Genetics has called predictive embryo tests “an unproven, unethical practice.” It recommended banning the tests until regulations are developed, MIT Technology Review reported.

It is difficult to prove whether the tests work. Even today, accurate predictions of a newborn’s health risks cannot be evaluated until decades from now.

Meyer, a co-author of the Science article, told MIT Technology Review that the Federal Trade Commission should monitor the advertised claims of embryo testing companies.

She was also skeptical of screening embryos for the perceived likelihood of academic achievement.

“I certainly don’t think this is something good. I am concerned about it,” she said. “The bigger risk is saying nothing and letting this unfold against a laissez-faire regulatory and market system.”

Meyer and her co-authors in their article warn that if embryo testing for various traits ever becomes effective, genetic screening could “exacerbate existing inequalities” as wealthier groups use it to have healthier, taller, or smarter offspring.

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