The emergence of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has given new urgency to calls from social scientists, bench scientists, and scientific associations for broad public dialogue about human genome editing and its applications. Most recently, these calls were formalized in a consensus report on the science, ethics, and governance of human genome editing released by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) that argued for public engagement to be incorporated into the policy-making process for human genome editing (1). So, where does the public stand on the issue of human genome editing? And how do those attitudes translate into the desire for more public input on human genome editing as new applications emerge in the policy arena?
First of all, gene editing can mean a lot of different things: you can edit the human genome for therapeutic purposes, to treat disease, for instance; or potentially to “enhance” human abilities, such as intelligence. And those changes can be made so that they’re passed on to future generations (so-called germline editing) or so that they affect only the individual whose cells are being edited (somatic editing).
Scheufele wanted to survey the public on gene editing in all its nuances, because people may have very different opinions on whether embryos are edited to cure a crippling disease or to boost a kid’s intelligence. (None of these things have been accomplished yet; the research is still in its infancy.) And one of his findings took Scheufele by surprise: he expected people to draw a line when it comes to all kinds of germline editing. After all, edits that can be passed on to future generations can change the human gene pool forever — and we don’t really know what the consequences might be. But he found that people really only drew a line when editing, especially germline editing, was for “enhancement” rather than treating disease.