July 1, 2015

Americans, Politics and Science Issues

Chapter 5: Public Views About Biomedical Issues

This chapter looks at a handful of issues in the biomedical arena. No single set of factors is central to explaining views across all of these topics. One of the issues we examined related to changing a baby’s genetic characteristics for specific purposes. Views of genetic modification are influenced by religious observance, as measured by frequency of attending worship services; by political ideology; and by a mix of other factors depending on the circumstances posed for the genetic changes. When it comes to another new biomedical technology, other factors come into play: Opinion about artificial organs created through bioengineering for transplant in humans varies, especially by education and science knowledge with no relationship to religious affiliation or church attendance. Opinions about whether childhood vaccines, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, should be required or should be left to parents’ discretion are strongly related to age; age also predicts views about the safety of childhood vaccines. Opinions about whether to allow access to experimental medical treatments before clinical trials show them to be safe and effective for that condition are related to age, science knowledge and family income.

Modifying a Baby’s Genes

Genetic Modifications for BabiesThe Pew Research survey asked for people’s views about changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to make the baby more intelligent. An overwhelming majority of adults (83%) say that modifying genetic characteristics to make a baby more intelligent is “taking medical advances too far.” Just 15% say this would be an appropriate use of medical advances.

A separate question on the survey asked about changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to reduce the risk of serious diseases.

Opinion about this circumstance is closely divided, with about half of adults (50%) saying genetic changes for this purpose would be taking medical advances too far, and a nearly equal share of 46% saying this would be an appropriate use of medical advances.40

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Genetic Modifications To Make a Baby More IntelligentThere are generally modest differences in views about genetic modifications to make a baby more intelligent. Strong majorities of both men and women are opposed to modifications aimed at increasing a baby’s intelligence, although opinion is more negative among women (87%) than it is among men (78%).

Hispanics are a bit more likely than either non-Hispanic whites or blacks to say this would be an appropriate use of medical advances. Younger and older adults tend to hold similar views on this issue. However, those under age 50 are a bit more likely than are older generations to say changing a baby’s genetic characteristics to make the baby more intelligent is appropriate.

Education and Knowledge
Few Differences in Views of Genetic Modifications to Make a Baby More Intelligent, by Education, Science Knowledge, Party or Ideology

There are no differences in views on this issue by education. Those who know more about science, generally, are slightly more inclined to say that genetic modification aimed at increasing a baby’s intelligence is appropriate (18% compared with 13%).

Party and Ideology

There are modest differences in views on this issue by party and ideology. Democrats and leaning Democrats are slightly more likely than are those who identify with or lean to the GOP to say that changing a baby’s genetic characteristics for this purpose is an appropriate use of medical advances (18% compared with 13%). Political liberals are a bit more likely (22%) than either moderates or conservatives (13% each) to say genetic modification for this purpose would be appropriate.

Multivariate Analyses

Factors Associated With Views About Genetic Modifications to Increase a Baby’s IntelligenceA multivariate logistic analysis that includes religious affiliation and frequency of church attendance finds those who regularly attend services more likely to consider genetic modifications for this purpose to be taking medical advances too far. The predicted probability of a man saying that genetic modifications to make a baby more intelligent would be appropriate is 0.18, while the probability of women saying the same is 0.10. The difference in predicted probability between men and women rounds to 7 percentage points. Hispanics (+0.09), as well as those of some other or mixed race (+0.11), are more likely to say this is appropriate than are non-Hispanic whites. Moderates are, on average, less likely than are liberals to consider genetic modifications for this purpose appropriate       (-0.05). Being a conservative is not a significant predictor of views on this topic and differences by party do not reach customary levels of statistical significance once other characteristics are statistically controlled. Nor does education, science knowledge or age significantly predict views on this topic when controlling for other factors.

Modifying Genetic Characteristics to Reduce Disease Risk

Public opinion is more closely divided when it comes to the idea of modifying a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to reduce the risk of serious diseases; 46% say this is an appropriate use of medical advances while 50% say it is taking medical advances too far.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Genetic Modifications to Reduce Risk of Serious DiseasesWomen are a bit more negative than men about genetic modifications to reduce the risk of serious diseases (54% of women vs. 47% of men say this would be taking medical advances too far).

There are modest differences by age on this question. Those under age 30 are a bit more likely than older adults to say that changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to reduce disease risk is appropriate.

These patterns by gender and age are in keeping with views about genetic modifications to make a baby more intelligent.

There are modest differences in views about this issue by race and ethnicity. Hispanics are a bit more likely than blacks to say this is an appropriate use of medical advances, but neither group is significantly different from whites in views about this issue.

Few Differences in Views of Genetic Modifications to Reduce Risk of Serious Diseases, by Education, Science KnowledgeEducation and Knowledge

There are no more than modest differences among education groups in views about genetic modifications to reduce the risk of serious diseases. There are no differences between college graduates with a degree in a scientific field and those with some other degree. Although, those who know more about science are a bit more likely than those with less knowledge to say genetic modifications for this purpose are appropriate (52% compared with 40%).

Genetic Modifications to Reduce Risk of Serious DiseasesParty and Ideology

A somewhat larger share of Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party say that genetic modification to reduce disease risk is appropriate than say this would be taking medical advances too far (52% vs. 44%). The balance of opinion among Republicans and Republican leaners goes in the other direction with 55% saying this would be taking advances too far and 42% saying this would be an appropriate use of medical advances.

Liberals, more than conservatives and moderates, say genetic modifications for this purpose would be appropriate. Moderates are closely divided on this issue with 47% saying genetic modifications for this purpose would be appropriate and half (50%) saying it would be taking medical advances too far.

Factors Associated with Views About Genetic Modifications to Reduce Risk of Serious DiseasesMultivariate Analyses

A multivariate regression analysis that includes religious affiliation and frequency of worship service attendance finds a handful of predictors. Older as compared with younger adults are more likely to say that genetic modifications to reduce disease risks are taking medical advances too far. Those who attend worship services regularly are more likely to see genetic modification to reduce disease risks as taking advances too far. There are also modest differences by ideology. Political conservatives (-0.14) as compared with liberals are less likely to say that genetic modifications for this purpose are appropriate. Other factors, including political party, being African American and gender are not statistically significant predictors once religion is included in the model. Hispanics do not statistically differ from non-Hispanic whites on this issue once other factors are statistically controlled. Education and science knowledge are not significant predictors of view on this.

Bioengineering of Organs

Bioengineering of Artificial OrgansNew technologies in science and medicine are generating an increasingly wide array of medical treatments. One such treatment involves creating artificial organs, such as hearts or kidneys, for transplant in humans needing organ replacement. The Pew Research survey asked the general public whether or not they felt the use of bioengineering to create artificial organs was an “appropriate use of medical advances” or was “taking such advances too far.” Fully 74% of adults say that bioengineering of organs is appropriate, while 23% say this is taking medical advances too far.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Majorities in the three largest racial and ethnic groups say that bioengineered organs are appropriate; blacks and Hispanics are somewhat more inclined than are whites to say this is taking medical advances too far, however. In addition, men, more than women, say bioengineered organs are an appropriate use of medical advances. Age groups tend to hold similar views on this issue, though the youngest adults (ages 18 to 29) are a bit more likely than seniors (ages 65 and older) to consider bioengineered organs to be appropriate. When looking at broader age groups, there are no differences between the views of those under 50 and those older than 50.

Bioengineering of Artificial Organs, by Education, Science Knowledge and Family IncomeEducation and Knowledge

There are modest differences in views about this issue by education; college graduates, especially those with postgraduate degrees, more so than those with less education, say bioengineering of organs is an appropriate use of medical advances. Those with a college or higher-level degree outside of a scientific field are more inclined than other college graduates to say the use of bioengineered organs is taking medical advances too far.

There is a wide difference in views about this issue between those who hold more and less knowledge about science.

And respondents with higher family incomes are more likely than those with lower family incomes to say bioengineered organs is an appropriate use of medical advances.

Party and Ideology

Views About Bioengineered Artificial Organs, by Party and IdeologyThere are modest differences in views about bioengineered organs by party and ideology. Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic party are a bit more likely than are Republicans and leaning Republicans to say the use of bioengineered artificial organs is appropriate (78% vs. 72%). Moderates and liberals are a bit more likely than are conservatives to say the use of such organs is an appropriate use of medical advances.

Multivariate Analyses

Factors Associated With Views About Bioengineered Artificial OrgansA multivariate logistic regression analysis finds that more education and more knowledge about science are associated with the idea that bioengineered organs are an appropriate use of medical advances. Those with more science knowledge are 18 percentage points more likely than those with less such knowledge to say that bioengineered organs for human transplant are appropriate, controlling for other factors. Those with a postgraduate degree are modestly more likely to say such organs are an appropriate use of medical advances (+0.08). Those with more science knowledge and a postgraduate degree are predicted to be 23 percentage points more likely than those with less science knowledge and a high school degree or less to say bioengineered organs for human transplant are appropriate.

Democrats and leaning Democrats are more likely than are those who identify with or lean to the GOP to say that such organs are an appropriate use of medical advances (a 7 percentage point change in predicted probability). Hispanics are, on average, more likely than whites to consider bioengineering of artificial organs to be taking medical advances too far (-0.08). There are no significant differences by age, gender or ideology after statistically controlling for other factors.

A separate analysis finds that neither religious affiliation nor frequency of church attendance predicts views about bioengineered organs, once other factors are statistically controlled. (Details of this analysis are available upon request.)

Views on Childhood Vaccines

Childhood VaccinesAsked about whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and polio should be required or left up to parental choice, 68% of adults say such vaccines should be required while 30% say parents should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children. Interestingly, a CBS News survey replicated this finding in February 2015, after the recent measles outbreak and found similar results: 66% said vaccines should be required, 32% said parents should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children.41

A separate Pew Research survey conducted February 2015 found 83% of adults saying that childhood MMR vaccines are generally safe for healthy children, 9% said they are not safe and the remaining 7% did not express an opinion.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Younger adults are less inclined than older adults to believe vaccines should be required for all children: 37% of adults under age 50 say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, compared with 22% of those ages 50 and older. By contrast, in 2009, opinions about vaccines were roughly the same across age groups.

Men and women hold similar views about requiring vaccines. At the same time, slightly more parents of minor children than those without children believe vaccinating children is a parental choice. There are no significant differences in views about this issue by race and ethnicity.

Views on Childhood Vaccines by Education, Knowledge and IncomeEducation and Knowledge

Those with a college degree are about equally as likely as other education groups to say vaccines should be required.

There are modest differences in opinion by level of science knowledge, with those who hold less factual knowledge about science a bit more likely to say that childhood vaccines should be required. As noted below, however, differences by knowledge levels are not statistically significant in logistic regression analyses after controlling for other factors.

Views about childhood vaccines also are similar across income groups. Among adults living in households with an annual income of $75,000 or more, 29% say parents should decide whether or not their child gets vaccinated. This holds true even among the highest of earners (those in households with an annual income of $100,000 or more). These opinions are on par with those of people living in lower- and middle-income households.

Party and Ideology

Trends on Childhood Vaccines by Party and IdeologyThere are modest differences in views about vaccines along political lines, a difference that emerged since 2009 when Pew Research last polled on this issue. In the 2014 survey, fully 74% of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party said vaccines should be required, compared with 64% of Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP. By comparison, there was no difference in views on vaccinations along party lines in 2009. The Pew Research analysis using a three-way classification of independents, Republicans and Democrats shows the same pattern.

There are modest differences by ideology with conservatives more inclined than liberals to say that parents should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children (33% compared with 25%).

Factors Associated With Views About Requiring Childhood VaccinesMultivariate Analyses

A multivariate logistic regression analysis finds age and political party affiliation to significantly predict views about childhood vaccines. As seen above, older adults are more likely than younger adults to say that vaccines should be required. The difference in predicted probability of the youngest to the oldest respondents saying that vaccines should be required is 32 percentage points.

Democrats and leaning Democrats are more likely than their Republican counterparts to say that childhood vaccines should be required, controlling for other factors (a difference in the predicted probability between the two groups of 9 percentage points). Political ideology, gender and education are not significant predictors of views on this issue. Race and ethnicity are not significant predictors of opinion, although there is a trend for Hispanics to say vaccines should be required, relative to non-Hispanic whites.

A separate analysis including religious affiliation and frequency of church attendance finds evangelical Protestants less likely to say that such vaccines should be required. Age and political party are significant predictors of vaccines, even when controlling for these religious factors.

Safety of Childhood MMR Vaccine

A separate Pew Research survey conducted in February 2015, after the recent outbreak of measles, asked about the perceived safety of childhood vaccines. The vast majority of adults, 83%, said vaccines are generally safe for healthy children. Just 9% said vaccines were not safe and 7% did not give an opinion.

Perceived Safety of Childhood Vaccines

Factors Associated With Views About Safety of Childhood Vaccines

Majorities of all major demographic groups say that childhood vaccines are generally safe. College graduates are a bit more likely than those with less education to consider childhood vaccines safe. There are no differences between party groups about this issue. Moderates are a bit more likely than either conservatives or liberals to say that childhood vaccines are generally safe.

Multivariate Analyses

A multivariate analysis predicting the view that childhood vaccines are safe finds older adults are more inclined to consider these vaccines safe for healthy children, controlling for other factors (+0.07). Blacks are less likely to see these vaccines as safe (-0.19), as are Hispanics (-0.07). (No analysis by science knowledge, religion or church attendance is possible in this survey.)

Access to Experimental Drugs

Access to Experimental Drug TreatmentsThe Pew Research survey also asked the general public for their views about giving more people access to experimental drug treatments before clinical trials have shown whether such drugs are safe and effective for a specific disease or condition. The general public tends to favor this idea by a margin of 54%-43%.42

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Some 59% of whites favor this idea, compared with about half of Hispanics (48%) and 36% of African Americans.43 Men and women are about equally likely to favor increased access to experimental drugs before clinical trials are complete, as are those under and over age 50.

Education and Knowledge

Access to Experimental Drug TreatmentsCollege graduates tend to be more strongly in favor of this idea than are those with less education. Those with more knowledge about science are more likely to favor access to experimental drugs before they have been fully tested relative to those with less science knowledge. However, views among those with a college degree or higher in a science field are about the same as those with a degree in some other field.

Those with higher family incomes also tend to be more strongly in favor of allowing access to experimental medical treatments.

Views About Access to Experimental Treatments, by Party and Ideology
Party and Ideology

Republicans (including those who lean to the GOP) are somewhat more inclined than are Democrats (and those who lean to the Democrats) to favor allowing access to experimental drug treatments before they have been shown to be safe and effective for a particular condition (58% compared with 51%). There are no differences among political ideology groups in views about this issue, however.

Multivariate Analyses

The crosstabs shown above suggest an inverted-U, or curvilinear, effect of age on support for access to experimental drug treatments; this is due to the difference between the middle age groups as compared with those who are younger and older.

Factors Associated With Views About Access to Experimental TreatmentsA multivariate logistic regression also finds that coefficients for both age and age squared are statistically significant, which is evidence of a curvilinear relationship. For example, adults age 20 have a predicted probability of 0.48, adults at the age of 50 have a predicted probability of 0.61, an adults at the age of 80 have a predicted probability of 0.54 of favoring access to experimental treatments.

The model, shown here, also included a factor for family income due to the strong bivariate relationship shown above. Higher family income also significantly predicts more support for access to experimental drug treatments (+0.25 difference in predicted probability from the lowest to highest income category).44 Those with more knowledge about science are, on average, more likely to support for this idea (+0.11). African Americans are, on average, less inclined than are whites to favor access to experimental medical treatments, controlling for other factors (-0.16).

Other factors in the model, including gender, education, party affiliation and ideology, do not significantly predict views about access to experimental drug treatments. A separate model including religious affiliation groups and frequency of attendance at worship services found that neither factor significantly predicted views on this issue. (Further details are available upon request.)

  1. A group of prominent genetic researchers urged a moratorium on experiments that would that would alter the DNA of human sperm, eggs or embryos in the March 12, 2015, issue of Nature. These ideas once seemed far off, but new tools for gene editing are making applications of this sort seem imminent. The group distinguishes between gene-editing techniques that address disease in adults with those that would alter every cell of a baby and be passed along to future generations.
  2. CBS News poll conducted Feb 13-17, 2015, with 1,006 adults.
  3. The general issue of access to experimental treatments before new treatments have been fully evaluated the Food and Drug Administration has long been a concern for those suffering from cancer, AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Public attention to this issue related to Ebola treatment occurred after this survey was conducted.
  4. For more on racial differences, see Anderson, Monica. March 3, 2015. “Opinions on expanding access to experimental drugs differ by race, income.” Fact Tank. Other Pew Research studies that touch on views about medical treatments also have found sizeable differences among racial and ethnic groups, perhaps stemming from different group experiences as well as differences in religious views. See Chapter 7 of Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension.” See also Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “Views on End-of-Life Medical Treatments.” For more on racial differences, see Anderson, Monica. March 3, 2015. “Opinions on expanding access to experimental drugs differ by race, income.” Fact Tank. Other Pew Research studies that touch on views about medical treatments also have found sizeable differences among racial and ethnic groups, perhaps stemming from different group experiences as well as differences in religious views. See Chapter 7 of Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension.” See also Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “Views on End-of-Life Medical Treatments.”
  5. Those who don’t know or decline to provide their family income were assigned to the midpoint of the nine-point scale of family income.