Church urges caution over "three parent babies"

Strand of DNA
The Church has concerns about the speed the UK is moving towards the genetic enhancement of embryos.

The Church of Scotland is urging the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to think very carefully before licensing any clinical use of the new “three parent babies” techniques it has approved.

Dr Murdo Macdonald, a geneticist with over 20 years international research experience and Policy Officer for the Church's Society, Religion and Technology Project which has been considering this issue for a number of years. He said

“I would urge the HFEA to consider very carefully before proceeding to license any clinical use of these techniques. This is the first instance of regulatory approval for genetic modification of a human baby. A strong and long-standing international consensus asserts that we should not cross this ethical ‘bright line’, since to do so will very likely lead to a future of genetically modified, ‘enhanced’ and ‘designer’ babies. Genetic enhancement also risks dehumanising and commodifying relationships between children and their parents. These consequences cannot be ignored in reflecting on the present decision.”

“We have concerns not just with the “direction of travel” with this research, but also the speed at which the UK is moving down this road. Many other countries expressly prohibit the development of this kind of technology, and many within the scientific community have also raised concerns.”

The HFEA has approved the clinical use of novel techniques which have been portrayed as means of treating mitochondrial disease. Dr Macdonald argues that, in addition to the potential social consequences, these techniques create significant risks to the prospective child. Prevention of mitochondrial disease can be more safely and reliably accomplished through a variety of other techniques, including egg donation. The benefit of ‘mitochondrial replacement’ is that it fulfils the mother’s desire to be genetically related to her child. Such desires, while understandable, are not a medical benefit. He said

“In our view, the benefit for a relatively small number of women of being genetically related to their children do not nearly justify the potential health risks to the child and the harmful consequences for society of the advent of human genetic engineering. Our careful consideration of this issue over a number of years includes the professional experience of people who work with children with severe physical disabilities. We are very aware of the effects on the children and their families caused by their long term ill health, their low quality of life, their debilitating suffering and the devastation of a premature death.We are also aware of some of conditions which are the result of severe mitochondrial disease, and realise no one can fully understand the pain experienced by a parent who knows that this was caused by a condition handed down to their child.”

In the wider scientific community, experiments performed by Prof Dieter Egli, a stem-cell scientist at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute, have found that mitochondrial donation may not work. He recommends that the procedure not be used in humans in the meantime. Prof Egli advocates caution, saying in Nature magazine earlier this year “I don’t think it would be a wise decision for the HFEA to go forward with this uncertainty.”

Prof Deiter Egli’s research can be found on the Nature website.