Trusting People with Genetic Information

Author(s): Owen Barr and Kate Thompson
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Eighth Report
Editor(s): Ann Marie Gray, Katrina Lloyd, Paula Devine, Gillian Robinson and Deirdre Heenan
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 1911 4
Pages: 70-86
Subject Area(s): Health

Abbreviations: UK - United Kingdom, NI - Northern Ireland, NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times

Background to the Research

  • During the twentieth century, rapid developments have occurred in relation to genetic knowledge and understanding, the pace of which has often been underestimated.
  • As a consequence of media coverage regarding genetically modified crops, cloning of animals (for example, Dolly the sheep), the Human Genome Project, and more recently, the cloning of the first human embryo, the terms genetics and genetic engineering are now familiar to the majority of adults in the UK.
  • Whilst NI is part of the UK, it has a very distinct identity and strong cultural traditions that have been repeatedly shown to influence social attitudes across a wide range of topics.
  • This chapter reports some key findings from the Attitudes to Genetics Research module included the 1999 NILT survey. The main topics covered were levels of trust in various sources of genetic information, attitudes towards the use of genetic tests by insurance companies and employers, and in making decisions about abortion.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the authors come from the 1999 NILT survey which began in 1998 and is carried out annually.
  • Each year, interviews are carried out with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI.
  • The sample size for the 1999 NILT survey was 2,200 - although some modules were asked of only half the sample.
  • Half the sample were asked the questions on genetics.

Main Findings

  • Respondents were most likely to trust scientists working in health research charities to provide them with information on the dangers of research into human genes and least likely to trust journalists working in national newspapers
  • Almost one in ten respondents (9%) say that someone in their family has a serious genetic condition.
  • The majority of respondents feel that genetic tests should not be used in accepting people for, or pricing, life insurance policies (77% and 78% respectively).
  • Most respondents oppose the use of genetic tests, or a consideration of the results of any genetics tests, by employers. The suggestion that an employer should have the right to make an applicant for a job have a test was opposed most.
  • 46% of respondents support the view that genetic tests should be available to all pregnant women and 41% that tests should only be available to those women with a special reason to suspect a problem. Only 8% feel that tests should not be available at all.


  • The findings from the NILT survey confirm that members of the public have strong opinions about genetic developments and demonstrate that, overall, attitudes to genetics in NI are similar to those reported by surveys carried out in Britain and America.


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