One in four Americans say they would alter an embryo’s DNA if it improved their future offspring’s prospects of getting into a top college, according to new research.
And four in 10 say they would be more likely than not to screen their embryos if it meant they could select for genetic variants that would enhance their children’s education.
The younger generations – those under 35 – and those with a college degree are the most likely to use gene altering or screening to improve the odds of their children getting into a top-100 ranked college, according to research published in the journal Science.
The findings suggest that a substantial proportion of Americans would be willing to use a technology that is hugely controversial, largely unregulated and, in the case of gene editing, prohibited in many countries, if it gave their children a head start.
While some will be horrified at the prospect of embryos ‘engineered’ to do well at school, in many ways the findings reflect the high stakes nature of an education system geared towards a single model of what success looks like.
Gene editing, such as CRISPR, involves altering an embryo’s DNA and is not known to have been used in humans, other than an attempt to give three Chinese children resistance to AIDS.
Genetic screening – known as PGT-P – aims to predict the expected value of different phenotypes, or characteristics, of each embryo.
Although it has been used to target chromosomal disorders and traits, such as Huntington’s disease, Down’s syndrome and breast cancer, it could potentially be used to screen for non-medical traits, such as cognitive ability and educational achievement.
Researchers at Geisinger, the University of Southern California, UCLA, the National Bureau of Economic Research and Harvard University carried out what is believed to be the first study of its kind into the intention to use genetic technology in this way.
They conducted a national survey of almost 7,000 people, asking them how likely it was that they would use gene editing or screening if it improved their future children’s odds of getting into a top-100 ranked college.
The survey also asked participants about SAT preparation courses, as a benchmark of attitudes towards college admissions interventions.
Participants were asked to assume each intervention was safe and free, and, for gene editing and screening, that they were already using IVF.
They were told about 3% of high school seniors attended a top-100 ranked college, and that using the intervention would increase the likelihood that their child would go to a top-ranked college from 3% to 5%.
The survey found that 28% said they were more likely than not to use gene editing if it improved their offspring’s prospects, and 38% said they were more likely than not to use PGT-P, compared with 68% who said they were more likely than not to use SAT prep.
Respondents said they were more likely to use each intervention if they were told that 90% of relevant people also used it, than if they learned that just 10% were using it.
Under 35s said they were more likely to use each intervention, as were those who had at least a bachelor’s degree.
“These results might reflect parents’ tendency to try to mirror their own educational outcomes in the outcomes of their offspring,” the researchers said.
The findings suggest that the use of genetic technologies is not a fringe issue, with the history of attitudes towards IVF showing that even innovations that encounter active resistance can quickly become normalized, they said.
“Our data suggest that it would be unwise to assume that use of PGT-P—even for controversial traits—will be limited to idiosyncratic individuals, or that it has little potential to cause or contribute to society-wide changes and inequities,” they added.
The risk that genetic technology could entrench the educational divide is particularly acute, with the college educated more likely to want to avail themselves of the potential advantage it could bring.
“That those who themselves have higher educational attainment are more interested in using PGT-P for this phenotype raises the risk that PGT-P will exacerbate existing inequalities,” the researchers said.
“Over several generations, the gains from PGT-P could build on one another, resulting in familial transfers of socially-favored phenotypes that mirror and—given the costs of IVF—amplify unequal familial transfers of wealth.”
The researchers argue that while public attitudes should inform debate on the use of genetic technology, it is important to have a sustained national discussion on the expected outcomes and risks of screening embryos.
Follow me on Twitter.