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MARCH 2015

MPs back “three-parent” babies

despite safety and ethical concerns

On 3rd February 2015 MPs voted 382-128 in favour of legalising the production of three parent embryos after Government had given its support to introducing regulations in the previous year.  On 24th February the House of Lords rejected an attempt to block the plan and the first baby could be born as early as 2016. i

An explanation of the process, with diagrams, was included in the November issue of image news. i

Concern from the Church

The Anglican and Catholic churches and the Free Church of Scotland had all warned that it would be irresponsible for MPs to pass these new laws.  Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, which funds research on this procedure, had responded, “It is remarkable that the Church has pronounced that there has been insufficient scientific study without first asking the scientists who lead this research.” i

Parliamentary concern

But is not only the church which questions the wisdom of pressing ahead.  Fiona Bruce MP laid a motion, which was rejected, opposing the approval of the regulations for several reasons:

UK Concern

In September 2014, an article in New Scientist warned, “Now it appears that we may have seriously underestimated the influence that mitochondria have. Recent research suggests that they play a key role in some of the most important features of human life.  This raises the ethically troubling prospect – once widely dismissed, including by this publication, - that children conceived in this way will inherit vital traits from three parents.” i  

Dr Trevor Stammers, Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary’s University in London, said: “We do not yet know the interaction between the mitochondria and nuclear DNA. To say that it is the same as changing a battery is facile. It’s an extremely complex thing.” i

Dr Peter Saunders, Chief Executive of Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) has outlined the five big questions MPs failed to answer and makes the point that, “The research scientists involved have huge financial, ideological and research-based vested interests and getting the regulatory changes and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers. Hence their desire for attention-grabbing media headlines and heart rending (but highly extreme and unusual) human interest stories that are often selective about what facts they present.

It must be tempting for politicians to make promises of ‘miracle cures’ in years to come which no one may remember. But I suspect it is much more about media hype than real hope.

This new push is being driven as much by prestige for government, research grants for scientists and profits for biotechnology company shareholders as anything else.” i

International Concern

It is not only UK academics who have grave misgivings.  The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) in Berkeley, California expressed concern in an open letter to UK MPs.  This was signed by 53 prominent scholars, scientists and advocates. i  The letter maintains that, “there has been much misinformation about the safety and efficacy of these techniques, and about what is at stake.” It then outlines, “five critical facts of which you may not be aware.”  The letter concludes by urging that the regulations, which are, “chipping away at what has been a long-respected international consensus against human germline modification,” be rejected.

Following the commons vote, in a letter to the Times, fifty-five Italian MPs called for the House of Lords to reject the law, calling it “a dangerous intervention” whose consequences “cannot possibly be contained within the confines of the United Kingdom.” They stated, “The creation of such embryos could have uncontrollable and unforeseeable consequences, affecting future generations, and modifying genetic heritage in an irreversible way, inevitably affecting the human species as a whole.” i

Selective reading of the evidence?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) had said, “We’ve found that there is broad support for permitting mitochondria replacement, i  but a ComRes poll in late January revealed that only 10 per cent of the public think the Government are right to push the regulations through parliament. i  In September last year Fiona Bruce MP quoted an earlier ComRes poll which found, “a limited number—only 18%—of the public are in favour of the proposals.” i  In the Department of Health’s own consultation a majority (62%) oppose the plans. i  

In an article in Nature, Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of CGS also questions the HFEA’s claims that 1 in 200 children is born each year with a form of mitochondrial disease (and the media’s uncritical acceptance of this figure), pointing out that the number is “more like 1 in 5,000” (R. H. Haas et alPediatrics 120;1326–1333; 2007). i  

She concludes, “The question raised by these proposals is whether a risky technique, which would at best benefit a small number of women, justifies shredding a global agreement with profound significance for the human future.”

Two articles on this topic by Dr Trevor Stammers may be read at http://blogs.tiu.edu/bioethics/2015/03/01/fools-rushing-in/ and http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=8390, one of which concludes, “No one wants to see desperate parents deprived of hope but neither do we want to see vulnerable parents misled into thinking three-parent IVF offers a certainty of eliminating mitochondrial disease and a healthy child being born. Too many voices across the world are raising well-founded doubts about that before proceeding now. Only a foolhardy physician would want to lead the charge into what may prove to be genetic Balaclava. We are galloping into genetic engineering of humans which will enter into the germline for the very first time. The fact that many of its advocates are denying that it is genetic engineering at all and likening it to an ‘organ transplant’, is deeply disturbing. If the truth is not being told about what is being proposed, what trust can we have in their reassurance about the outcome?”


1503 image news