A British politician has blasted proposals for “three-parent embryos”. In a terse summary of objections to the practice of mitochondrial transfer to prevent serious diseases Sir Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, told the House of Commons this week.
He points out that despite strong support from UK scientists and bioethicists and generally favourable treatment in the media, no other country in the world has authorised modification of the human genome. “Do we really want to become a rogue state in terms of bioethics?” he asks.
He also argues that the procedure “cures” no one. It simply prevents the birth of handicapped children. But this comes at the cost of destroying a human embryo for its “useful parts”. “There is no way that that can be considered ethical,” he says.
“… we are dealing with entirely separate issues when we talk about genetically modified food and what we are dealing with now, which is genetically modified people. We have only in the past 100 years come to terms with the debilitating, restrictive and oppressive results of centuries of racism buttressed by pseudo-scientific notions that have since been proved entirely false. How much more of a problem will we be confronted with when humanity is divided between the modified and the unmodified?
“… The mitochondria that contain DNA interact with the nucleus and many scientists therefore believe that they contribute material to the identity of an individual. Bioethicists have up until this point expressed almost universal consensus on germ-line genetic modification of our fellow humans, rejecting it as grievously immoral and completely unethical.
“The consensus is worth pointing out as we must know what the proponents of mitochondrial transfer are asking us to dissent from. They are asking us to dissent from opinion in every other country in the world. In this age of globalisation, we will be divorcing ourselves from the entire community of nations in terms of bioethics. Do we really want to become a rogue state in terms of bioethics?
“No one can deny the debilitations and hardships that these diseases cause. No one is seeking to downplay that suffering, but this is not about a cure. This will neither heal nor cure a single human being suffering from these diseases.
“What is worse, when we talk about pronuclear transfer, is that that effectively requires the creation of human beings for the sole purpose of harvesting their useful parts. Is that really the sort of society in which we wish to live, in which persons—individuals—are created, their parts harvested and then destroyed, merely to provide for other human beings? There is no way that that can be considered ethical, whether in terms of purely rational deductive natural law, or by the system of Christian ethics on which we in this country have traditionally relied.”
Naturally, this controversial issue had strong defenders as well. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, presented the views of scientists at the University of Newcastle, who are passionate promoters of the technique. In her view, mitochondrial DNA represents only a tiny sliver of our genetic endowment, so small that it is not worth worrying about. She also used a slippery slope argument: if gestational surrogacy, which involves three parents, is already legal, how could the government possibly object to mitochondrial transfer?
"The embryo would carry just 13 out of 23,000, or 0.056%, of the genetic material from the mitochondrial donor. As the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) said, it is not the nuclear DNA, so the child’s appearance, personality and other features are not affected. In Britain, the egg donation and surrogacy principle, whereby more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child, is already recognised. Medical procedures that introduce a donor’s biological material are also long accepted. The headlines, such as the BBC’s recent “Mum plus dad plus mum”, are not only sloppy and sensational, but unscientific. I would like the BBC’s other programme, “More or Less”, to comment on whether giving 0.056% of genetic material and 0% of nuclear DNA really constitutes being called “mum”.
"The UK is carrying out pioneering research on mitochondrial diseases. This country has the opportunity to be at the leading edge of the world in preventing such terrible diseases. It has taken us years to get to this point. Never before has a technique had such rigorous investigation, and ethical and scientific analysis. It is therefore incredibly important that progress does not stall."
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