Religious people oppose genetic engineering to enhance human abilities

Pope Francis blesses Elizabeth 'Lizzy' Myers, a 5-year-old girl from Ohio in the US who suffers from a genetic disease known as Usher syndrome, which leads to blindness and hearing loss, at the end of the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican earlier this year.Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The more religious a person is, the more likely they are to oppose genetic engineering that could enhance minds and bodies, and help babies suffering from genetic diseases.

According to a new Pew Research Center survey, many US adults oppose the application of breakthroughs in bio-engineering.

"In general, the most religious are the most wary about potential enhancements," says Pew.

Those who score high on an index of religious commitment are more likely to oppose gene editing to reduce the risk of disease in babies, brain chip implants to improved mental abilities and synthetic blood transfusions to improve physical abilities.

Religious people often believe such interventions "would be meddling with nature and crossing a line that should not be crossed", says Pew.

"Americans who have lower levels of religious commitment are more inclined to see the potential use of these techniques as just the continuation of a centuries-old quest by humans to try to better themselves."

A majority of highly religious Americans consider these potential enhancements to be meddling with nature

Catholic teaching is generally interpreted to support gene therapy to save the life of a person suffering a life-threatening disease, but opposes genetic enhancement for cosmetic or other similar reasons. 

The 1987 Catholic instruction Donum Vitae makes clear that genetic engineering is moral when it is a "strictly therapeutic intervention".

However Pew Research found that Protestant Americans shared many of the Catholic concerns, with 63 per cent of white evangelical Protestants saying gene editing that would give babies a much reduced risk of serious diseases would be meddling with nature, compared with just 31 per cent as many people with no religious affiliation who say this.

This contrasts with atheists and agnostics, where eight in 10 say gene editing to give healthy babies a much reduced chance of disease is similar to other ways humans have tried to better themselves over the years.