Suspicion of Scientists Clouds Support of Genetics Research

By Bates, Betsy | Clinical Psychiatry News, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Suspicion of Scientists Clouds Support of Genetics Research


Bates, Betsy, Clinical Psychiatry News


LOS ANGELES -- Americans enthusiastically support using genetic technology to prevent or cure disease, but voice a profound skepticism that scientists can be trusted to use genetic discoveries wisely.

Specifically, a nationwide study comprising 21 focus groups and a telephone survey of demographically diverse black Americans revealed a deep-seated fear that genetics will be used to promote class disparities, racism, and stereotypes.

Results of both studies, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, reflect attitudes among some Americans that scientists are driven by greed and power rather than by the betterment of humankind.

The first study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University's Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, grew out of a nationwide telephone survey of public attitudes about genetic research. Focus groups were convened in Boston, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, and Nashville, Tenn.

Center director Kathy Hudson, Ph.D., explained that the groups were asked to discuss scenarios involving carrier testing, prenatal testing, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, gene transfer, and sex selection.

"Focus groups were quite supportive of reproductive genetic technologies being advanced and studied and researched and made available to prevent severe disease," she said.

Individuals and families--not outsiders--should make "morally-laden" decisions, focus group members said.

Dr. Hudson saw little evidence of polarized opinion between "technological enthusiasts" and people with conservative religious beliefs. A focus group of evangelical Christians seemed just as committed to leaving difficult genetic decisions up to families as did other groups.

Opposition to genetic research entered the discussions when topics turned to non-health-related applications, particularly sex selection, said Dr. Hudson.

A few focus group members, most of them men, were not concerned where trait selection might lead, and expressed the belief that it was a "logical next step in human evolution."

But the clear majority of people feared abuses of trait selection techniques. One underlying worry was that genetic "enhancement" of human beings would be used unequally, deepening racial and class divisions within society and driving affluent people to create "stronger, faster, smarter children. …

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