The government is to consult on allowing a controversial particular new IVF treatment for inherited disease. Some rare life threatening diseases are carried by mitochondria, little bodies outside the nucleus of the cell, who only have DNA inherited from the mother. All her children will carry the disease. It is therefore possible to create a fertilised egg from the mother and father, but place the nucleus in a donated egg from a second woman, with healthy mitochondria.
This is described as creating a child with two mothers and one father. Actually, it creates a child much more than 99% DNA from the mother and father, placed in the mother’s womb, and difficult to tell from a child produced by more usual means.
This feels like a new step, engineering a child to avoid a fatal disease. But it is already possible to test and reject some embryos during IVF.
If you believe a fertilised egg is a ‘person’ any sort of IVF or embryo research or abortion is immoral.
The majority of people appear to want these technologies regulated but see the ability to help people have children of their own as important. (Although the NHS does not pay for the full recommended programme of IVF). Embryos are created and destroyed in IVF and the majority of people do not see this as murdering a person.
Just because we can do this, should we? (In fact more research will be needed before it can be tried in humans).
One argument comes from the disability movement, that such techniques concentrating on producing healthy children disrespect and demean those born different or who become different through life. This is important, the cult of the perfect child could be very dangerous. Yet to me, I might value a person paralysed as much as a person who is not; but preventing people being paralysed does not seem to me to demean anyone.
Another argument is that thousands of children await fostering or adoption, if people want children there are many waiting who need loving homes.
A third is that IVF is a heavily medical procedure, often emotionally draining and disappointing, and expensive. One could have concerns about encouraging people who don’t need it to go down that route.
The fourth point is why Greenpeace opposes GM crops but not gene therapy in life threatening diseases. Until now, all treatments do not alter the genes of the patient to be passed on to the next generation – a child treated with an artificial gene does not pass it to their children. These children with three parent IVF will have the nuclear genes from two parents and the mitochondria from a third – the change will be passed on. Cause enough to pause.
The development of medical science challenges us in many ways. Who is my neighbour? What is an acceptable risk? We need a calm national debate that avoids hysteria. Those who think such research is worth doing, need to think carefully about how we avoid turning children into commodities, disrespecting those born with disabilities, and how we support all our children. This would also be the first change which the child could pass to their own children. But it does not seem to me that this proposal is uniquely dangerous. If we take this step, there is no law stating we have to take the next one if we do not want to.