U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities
5. From plastic surgery to vasectomies: Public opinion on current human enhancement options
While some types of potential human enhancements may seem like science fiction to observers not immersed in the world of biotechnology, there are any number of enhancements already available to the general public today. From laser eye surgery to teeth whitening, modern human enhancements are widely known today.
The theme of “everyday enhancements” arose first in the series of focus group discussions Pew Research Center held as part of the development of this survey. As people thought through the possibility of using cutting-edge enhancements such as gene editing, brain chip implants or synthetic blood in the future, many also drew connections to cosmetic surgery and other kinds of enhancements widely available today.
As a point of comparison, the survey also included a series of questions about the kinds of procedures people can undergo today.13
The survey finds most Americans express a “go slower” reaction to the kinds of enhancements widely available today, mirroring some of the concerns expressed about future possibilities. But at least half of Americans – and in some cases, large majorities – say each of six kinds of enhancement procedures (ranging from surgery to prevent conception to eye surgery to elective cosmetic surgery) is an appropriate use of technology.
As with future possibilities for human enhancement, public views about cosmetic and other enhancements widely available today are tied to religious commitment. However, the magnitude of differences by religious commitment and religious affiliation on these types of procedures is relatively modest, by comparison with views about potential enhancements available in the future.
Most Americans say people are too quick to use cosmetic procedures today
Respondents were asked which statement is closer to their view: that “people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures in order to change their appearance in ways that are not really important,” or that “it’s understandable that more people undergo cosmetic procedures these days because it’s a competitive world and people who look more attractive tend to have an advantage.” Most U.S. adults (61%) choose the first, more negative statement, while 36% say cosmetic procedures are understandable.
There are modest differences in views about the use of cosmetic procedures by religious commitment. This pattern aligns with the much stronger differences by religious commitment about potential use of cutting-edge technologies considered in earlier chapters of this report. Some 65% of those in the “high” religious commitment category say “people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures,” compared with 56% of those with a low level of religious commitment.
There are only small differences across religious tradition on this question. Most members of all major religious groups, including those with no religious affiliation, say people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures in ways that are not really important.
Many people have at least indirect experience with enhancement procedures
To gauge familiarity with enhancements available today, the survey asked respondents whether they ever had any of several kinds of procedures, including elective cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, skin or lip injections, cosmetic dental procedures, hair replacement surgery or vasectomy/tubal ligation procedures. Altogether, about three-in-ten Americans (31%) have had at least one of these six procedures, and most adults (58%) know a close friend or family member who has had one or more.
Tubal ligation and vasectomy are akin to some of the potential future enhancements in that they involve a surgical procedure with a specific aim – in this case, contraception. A third of adults have a close friend or family member who has had this surgery, while 15% of adults say they have had either a vasectomy or tubal ligation procedure themselves.
Laser eye surgery, another procedure typically classified as an elective, cosmetic procedure, is included in this context because it is a bodily change aimed at enhancing one’s natural vision. Some 9% of adults report having had laser eye surgery themselves, while 32% have a close friend or family member who has done so.
About one-in-ten Americans (11%) also report having had cosmetic dental procedures to improve their smile, while smaller shares say they have had elective cosmetic surgery (4%), skin or lip injections (2%) or hair replacement surgery (1%).
As one might expect, direct experience with these procedures tends to vary by gender, income and age. Some 38% of women and 24% of men say they have had one or more of the six procedures. Four-in-ten (39%) of those with family incomes of $150,000 or higher have had at least one of these procedures, compared with 26% among those with family incomes under $30,000 annually. Personal experience with the six procedures also is more common among older adults; 40% of those ages 65 and older have had at least one of the procedures, compared with 19% among adults ages 18 to 29.
For the most part, Americans say each of these six procedures is an appropriate use of technology. Some 89% say laser eye surgery is an appropriate use of technology, while just 8% say this is taking technology too far. A similarly large majority (86%) say cosmetic dental procedures to improve one’s smile are an appropriate use of technology, while 76% say the same about both hair replacement surgery and vasectomy or tubal ligation surgery.
A smaller majority (62%) says elective cosmetic surgery is an appropriate use of technology, and a slim majority (53%) says this about the use of skin and lip fillers (such as Botox or hyaluronic acid).
Differences by education and income are apparent in people’s views about the enhancements available today, particularly between those at the lowest levels of income and education compared with those in the middle and higher levels.
People with incomes of $75,000 or higher are particularly likely to say each of these six types of enhancements is an appropriate use of technology.14 For instance, 78% of Americans in this income bracket say elective cosmetic surgery is an appropriate use of technology, compared with just half (49%) of those with family incomes under $30,000 – a gap of 29 percentage points.
Differences by educational attainment follow a similar pattern. For example, those with a college or postgraduate degree are more likely than adults with a high school degree or less schooling to say surgery to prevent pregnancy is an appropriate use of technology (86% vs. 65%).
Most Americans say cosmetic surgery is appropriate, but few see it as having more benefits than downsides for society
In focus group discussions with people around the country, some respondents talked about the similarity between the kinds of enhancements that may be available in the future and cosmetic surgery that is common now. Some focus group participants argued that both future human enhancements and cosmetic surgery were unnecessary and reflective of human vanity.
When asked specifically about cosmetic surgery, a majority of Americans (62%) say it is an appropriate use of technology, while about a third (34%) say it takes technology too far. There are sizeable differences on this question depending on personal experiences. An overwhelming majority of those who have had cosmetic surgery themselves (85%) say it is an appropriate use of technology. By contrast, 58% of those who have not had such a procedure and who do not have close friends or family who have had one say it is an appropriate use of technology, while 39% of this group says this is taking technology too far.
Those with lower levels of religious commitment are most inclined to say cosmetic surgery is an appropriate use of technology (73%). Among those who are highly religious, 55% say cosmetic surgery is appropriate and 39% say it takes technology too far.
Majorities of most major religious groups say cosmetic surgery is an appropriate use of technology. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics are more closely divided on this issue, as are blacks and Hispanics overall.
The general public appears somewhat skeptical about the psychological benefits of cosmetic surgery. About a quarter of Americans (26%) say cosmetic surgery “almost always” makes people feel more confident and better about themselves, but a majority (56%) say this only occurs “some of the time.”
About half of those who have had elective cosmetic surgery (53%) say it almost always makes people feel more confident and better about themselves. Fewer among those without such personal experience say the same, including 35% of those who have close friends or family who have had elective cosmetic surgery and 23% of those with neither type of personal connection to a cosmetic procedure.
On the other hand, just 8% of U.S. adults say cosmetic surgery “almost always” leads to unexpected health problems. Most (63%) say this sometimes occurs. Those who have had elective cosmetic surgery are less likely than others to say unexpected health problems occur at least some of the time.
Overall, about half of Americans (54%) say elective cosmetic surgery leads to both benefits and downsides for society, with a smaller share (26%) expressing the belief that there are more downsides than benefits. Relatively few (16%) say there are more benefits than downsides.
Again, those who have had elective cosmetic surgery are more likely to express positive views about it. 39% of people in this group say cosmetic surgery has more benefits than downsides for society, while just 12% say it has more downsides. But like the general population, about half (49%) say the benefits and downsides for society are roughly equal.
Religious commitment and affiliation do not have a significant effect on views of overall benefits and downsides of cosmetic surgery for society.
- These questions were asked in a survey conducted about a month later than the main survey covering gene editing, implanted devices and synthetic blood substitutes. See Methodology for details. ↩
- For an update on upper, middle and higher income levels in the U.S. see Pew Research Center’s May 2016 report, “America’s Shrinking Middle Class: A Close Look at Changes Within Metropolitan Areas.” ↩