Problems with the ComRes/CARE ‘3 parent embryo’ survey

ComRes recently carried out a CARE-sponsored survey (PDF) on the donation of mitocondrial DNA to help couples avoid passing some inherited disorders to their children. The methodology used in a 2014 ComRes survey on this topic was criticised by Watermeyer and Rowe (PDF). However, the more recent survey is very flawed, repeats some previous errors, and in some ways is worse than ComRes’ previous effort.

Question 1 on the 2015 survey asks

Currently the creation of children with DNA from three parents is not permitted by British law, nor is it permitted by any other country in the World. Next week the Coalition Government will ask MPs to vote to change the law to allow this practice because they believe it may help prevent hereditary diseases being passed from one generation to another. Others oppose a change due to the unknown impact on public safety and wider ethical concerns about the genetic modification of future generations.
To what extent would you support or oppose a change in the law to permit the creation of 3-parent children?
In 2014, Watermeyer and Rowe argued that ComRes used the potentially prejudicial term “3 parent embryo” but did not make “clear whether any precise explanation of this term was given to respondents, and we so we assume that this did not occur.” The more recent survey uses the term “children with DNA from three parents” – which may be a touch better – but still does not make clear whether any precise explanation was given to respondents; I would argue that this would have been needed.
This question (as Watermeyer and Rowe pointed out in 2014) is slanted by giving one argument for allowing the procedure (preventing heriditary procedures) and two against (public safety and ethical concerns). Watermeyer and Rower also raised a number of other (largely unresolved) issues with the previous use of this question – I’d recommend reading the full PDF on the Wellcome site.
Watermeyer and Rowe criticised the way that the earlier ComRes survey question framed the issue by stating that this procedure is not permited by British law. Now, though, the question is worse: it is framed by the statement that this treatment “is not permitted by British law, nor is it permitted by any other country in the World”.
Question 2 on the 2015 survey is:
The Government asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the body which regulates human embryo research, to assess the safety of allowing scientists to create children with DNA from three parents. The HFEA recommended that before allowing the creation of such children, extensive
safety experiments should be conducted. Although the Government next week will ask MPs to vote to permit the creation of children with DNA from three parents, it is now clear that some of these safety tests recommended by the HFEA have not been completed.
What in your view should happen?
This question is clearly framed in a biased way – ComRes gives an argument for delaying the creation of such children (saying HFEA recommended tests haven’t yet been done) based on a clear authority (HFEA). They don’t give any of the arguments for allowing this technique to be used sooner, nor mention any of the prominent bodies that support a change to the law.
ComRes’ Question 3 is more neutrally worded
If your MP votes to change the law to allow the creation of children with DNA from three parents next week, would it make you more or less likely to vote for them at the General Election on 7 May this year, or would it make no difference?
However, the answers are surprising – 25% of respondents say they would be less likely to vote for an MP who votes yes. Given the issues with the survey design, one is left with the question of whether this results reflects a surprising strength of opinion on the topic or is simply due to the poor design of the survey.
More broadly, there are enough issues with the design of this survey that I don’t think it’s possible to tell whether the answers given reflect the opinion of respondents or just the design of the survey. It’s not ethical to waste the time of participants by doing such weak research (and repeating errors made in previous work). It also wouldn’t be appropriate to use this survey to claim anything much about public opinion. Professional polling companies should be held to higher standards.

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