By Ben Smith
On February 3, the House of Commons of the UK Parliament created history when it voted in favour of the practice of creating babies using biological material from three parents. Supporters of the new law are seeking to develop treatments for rare forms of genetic diseases. Opponents have argued that the underlying science is too premature and that this technique crossed a significant ethical line.
The three parent technique seeks to treat a class of rare diseases that arise from mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that is contained outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg (see Figure 1). The most ethically concerning aspect of this three parent approach is known as Pronuclear Transfer. This technique works by creating an embryo using the sperm from the father and an egg from the genetic mother (with diseased mtDNA) and a second embryo is created from the father’s sperm and a donor egg from another woman with healthy mtDNA. These embryos are then destroyed when their nuclei are extracted. A third embryo is created by inserting the nuclei from the first embryo into the shell of the second embryo. This new embryo is a genetic clone of the first embryo with healthy mtDNA from the second embryo.[i]
The English Catholic Bishops Conference’s response to the parliamentary vote highlighted that:
“Whilst the Church recognises the suffering that mitochondrial diseases bring and hopes that alternative methods of treatment can be found, it remains opposed on principle to these procedures where the destruction of human embryos is part of the process.”[ii]
The Church does care about the suffering of parents who are trying to conceive a healthy baby but it cannot condone the way in which these new babies are conceived. The Church holds the position that human life begins at conception so it views the destruction of embryos as unethical.
Opponents of Christianity in the UK media have attempted to run the argument that religion is an impediment to scientific progress and with little interest in helping the people suffering from mitochondrial disease.[iii] This behaviour is following a similar pattern that has occurred over the last 50 years whenever there is a debate over a significant social issue.
However, little attention is paid to the intentions of the scientific community who are often the main beneficiaries of changes to the law as it opens up new areas for attracting research funding. In fact the UK Government’s Report on the Inquiry into the issue of Mitochondrial Donation[iv] identified that it was the scientific research community that had initially lobbied for this law to change. It is this same community that has been part of an advisory panel that has been providing reports to the Government, suggesting that there is no evidence that the technique was unsafe. This view contrasts with the US Federal Drug Administration Advisory group who are still very cautious about the science surrounding this technique.[v]
Those opposing the change in the law have identified a number of downsides of this technique. Firstly there are a number of psychological issues that are likely to surface when these children find out they had a second mother. Even though the genetic contribution of the second mother is small, new scientific discoveries in epigenetics are suggesting that the second mother’s mtDNA may play a role in influencing the child’s physical and other traits. Secondly, the ethical line that this technique crosses over into is genetic modification (GM). Bioethicists have suggested that the three parent technique is the least controversial of a range of new GM techniques that scientists have proposed. There is a fear that these other more controversial techniques could ultimately lead to the practice of human genetic modification to favour superior traits as opposed to treating diseases.[vi]Furthermore the use of reproductive cloning represents another area in which this technique crosses an ethical line. In fact scientists and legislators earlier this century, who were supporting the legalisation of stem cell research, were adamant that they never wanted to allow reproductive cloning as it was seen at the time as being repugnant to society. Here is the slippery slope at work.
The issue of three parent babies is likely to emerge in Australia in the next few years. Let’s hope that our society can have a frank and considered discussion about the scientific, ethical and social challenges associated with creating three parent babies. This new technique crosses ethical lines that our society should not cross.