How religious commitment affects people's reactions to medical advancements

Posted August 3

Highly religious Americans are more concerned than other U.S. adults about medical advancements designed to enhance human potential, according to a new Pew Research Center report on public understanding of biomedical technologies.

Nearly two-thirds of adults (64 percent) who pray daily, attend worship services at least weekly and say religion is very important in their lives say gene editing giving babies a much reduced risk of disease crosses a line we should not cross, compared with 28 percent of people with a low commitment to a faith community, Pew reported.

Highly religious Americans were also less comfortable with brain chip implants for improved cognitive abilities and synthetic blood for improved physical abilities. They were less likely than people with medium or low religious commitments to want to take advantage of potential enhancements and more concerned about their impact on society, noted Cary Funk, Pew's associate director of research on science and society.

"This was one of the striking findings," she said.

Researchers chose gene editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood enhancements for the new analysis because variations of these treatments are already being researched or tested in limited circumstances. Results are drawn from a survey of 4,726 U.S. adults, and the survey has a 2.2 percent margin of error.

People of faith likely fear that medical enhancements cross a boundary between the domains of medicine and of God, said E. Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver who consulted with Pew on the report. It's not that they reject science; it's that believers worry about tampering with what it means to be human.

"What you find in the report are misgivings and concerns, not an outright rejection of (these potential procedures) as evil," he said. "We're anticipating a future we've only seen in science fiction movies" and trying to figure out where to draw a moral line.

The religious community's concerns about gene editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood are shared by U.S. adults in general. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans are worried about a potential brain chip implant for enhanced cognitive abilities, while only 34 percent are enthusiastic about it.

"Majorities greet the possibility of these breakthroughs with more wariness and worry than enthusiasm and hope," researchers wrote.

Religious reactions

Some might assume that people of faith always reject scientific advancement, but earlier research has shown that isn't the case, Funk said. In a 2013 Pew study on radical life extension, religious people's reactions to medical procedures that prolong life were only slightly different from reactions from the general public.

"There are only a handful of (scientific) issues with strong patterns" along religious lines, Funk said.

Human enhancement through biotechnology is one of these issues, as Pew's report illustrates. Highly religious Americans are more likely than people with medium or low commitment to religion to believe gene editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood meddle with nature and cross a line humanity shouldn't cross.

Researchers were surprised by the strong influence of religiosity because people of faith have received little to no guidance from religious leaders about how to respond to developments like gene editing.

"Because human enhancement is still largely an issue for the future, it has not yet attracted a lot of attention in American religious communities. There is, for instance, no official teaching or statement on human enhancement or transhumanism that has come directly from any of the major churches or religious groups in the United States," wrote David Masci, a senior writer and editor at Pew, in a reflection on "the scientific and ethical dimensions of striving for perfection" that accompanies the new research report.

However, it's natural for believers to worry about taking biotechnology too far, said Todd Daly, an associate professor of theology and ethics at Urbana Theological Seminary in Champaign, Illinois. Christians are taught that humans are created in God's image, and they may instinctively believe that medical enhancement goes against God's wishes.

Religious commitment often goes hand in hand with a desire to think thoroughly about how a proposed change will affect one's family and community, Brugger said.

"Religious believers … want to test out the waters of change before change is adopted in a wholesale way," he said.

Scientific advancements don't come with clear moral guidance. For that, people have to turn to religion, Daly noted.

"Science is unable to provide us with any kind of metanarrative or overarching story that tells us what humanity is for, why we exist, our purpose or where we are headed. Religion and philosophy can fill in these answers and give us descriptions of … what it means to flourish," he said.

Moral concerns

In general, Americans are unsure about the moral implications of biotechnologies like gene editing. More people were undecided about the acceptability of each potential enhancement in Pew's study than were prepared to make a judgment.

For example, 41 percent of U.S. adults say they don't know if using synthetic blood to achieve much-improved physical abilities would be morally acceptable, 35 percent say it would be morally unacceptable and 22 percent are comfortable with the notion.

"It makes sense that a lot of people are not taking a stand yet," Funk said, noting that these procedures remain essentially hypothetical in spite of ongoing testing and research.

As more is learned about biotechnologies like gene editing and brain chip implants, people may come to embrace them. But now, many adults are worried about medical advancements that enhance a patient's abilities rather than preventing disease or curing a problem.

"Only 28 percent of adults say a synthetic blood substitute would be an appropriate use of technology if it produced improvements to speed, strength and stamina that were 'far above that of any human known to date.' By contrast, some 47 percent of adults say synthetic blood products would be appropriate if the magnitude of the change was much smaller," Pew reported.

Respondents were also worried about medical enhancements deepening socioeconomic divides in the U.S. "For instance, 73 percent believe inequality will increase if brain chips become available because initially they will be obtainable only by the wealthy," researchers noted.

Daly described these fears as well-founded, noting that faith communities should be aware of the consequences of extreme medical advancements.

"These are deeply theological concerns," he said. "I cannot see this playing out in any other way than enhancing inequalities that already exist."

Other takeaways

  • More Americans are interested in gene editing than blood or brain enhancements.
Gene editing giving babies a much-reduced disease risk was notably more appealing to U.S. adults than brain chip implants or synthetic blood. Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) would want gene editing for their baby, compared with 32 percent who would want a brain chip implant for themselves and 35 percent who would want synthetic blood.

"This difference could stem from the fact that the gene-editing scenario is focused on disease prevention, while the other two scenarios are more about augmenting abilities," researchers wrote. However, there weren't very significant differences between the public's sense of each procedure's moral acceptability, they noted.

  • Are these biotechnologies inevitable?
In spite of widespread discomfort with medical advancements like gene editing and synthetic blood, many Americans think major biotechnology developments are coming whether they want them to or not.

More than 8 in 10 U.S. adults (81 percent) think doctors will routinely transplant artificially made organs for humans within the next 50 years and 54 percent think computer chips will routinely be embedded in our bodies, Pew reported.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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