Today, Tuesday 3 February, the British House of Commons will debate an alteration to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which will allow for the first time the creation of persons comprised of DNA from three parents.
Besides concerns about the safety of the scientific procedure known as mitochondrial donation – which has never been allowed legally anywhere – there are also ethical concerns that British parliamentarians will have to consider.
In one of the two techniques, pronuclear transfer, two embryos are created and combined to produce a healthy embryo, resulting in the destruction of the embryo created from the donor egg. The other technique, maternal spindle transfer, involves the manipulation of the egg cell outside of the womb, combining egg cells from two different women.
British Parliamentarian Lord Alton of Liverpool, the Convenor of the DHI’s Cross Party Working Group on Human Dignity, said: “It is essential to voice support for those who suffer from mitochondrial diseases and to ensure that medical care is always sufficient. At the same time, it is equally important that scientific progress is in line with human dignity, which it must serve, rather than vice versa. It is not morally acceptable, and it can never be morally acceptable, to destroy one person, harvesting their DNA for the needs of another person, which one of these two methods permits. This is the fast road to any of the futuristic dystopias one can find at any cinema.”
The ethical implications of the proposed methods for mitochondrial donation include:
- Embryo destruction: In the case of pronuclear transfer, an embryo – a human life at its earliest stage – is destroyed when its pronuclei are removed and transferred to the healthy embryo, which has had its own pronuclei removed. Neither embryo is being treated with dignity: the healthy embryo is being bred and made to carry genetic material that is not its own, while supplying healthy mitochondria.
- Modifying the germline: Both techniques create what can be called ‘genetically modified babies’. This may open the door to more possibilities of modifying babies even before they are conceived or implanted.
- Parenthood: The notion of parenthood, of one mother and one father who have produced their offspring together, is blurred. Furthermore, conception is yet further divorced from the conjugal act.
DHI Chairman Luca Volontè said of the forthcoming UK parliamentary debate: “In modifying the person either at the embryonic stage (by giving a living embryo new genetic information), or by modifying the egg cells which, together with the sperm cells, are basic sex cells that form new life, personhood is diluted, the human body is commoditised and scientific practice gallops towards the normalisation of eugenics. It is a sign of how far we have come that in less than two generations, when IVF was first successfully tested in 1978, people are now so inured to scientific ‘advancements’, many can no longer see the massive evil latent hiding under the outer aspect of ‘something good’.”