New cutting-edge techniques in biotechnology frequently evoke intuitive feelings of apprehension and unease. This is especially true for research that creates, manipulates or destroys human life.
If the general public, however, becomes too wary of such breakthroughs, funding and legislation in their favor may be adversely affected. Those who stand to profit routinely attempt to suppress legitimate concerns and questions through appeals to utility: The new biotechnological breakthrough will improve human health.
Instead of engaging the public with the truth, deception is often used to hide what is truly being done in laboratories and fertility clinics. A favorite tactic is to simply redefine existing terminology, inventing euphemistic or inaccurate terms. This manipulates the public into supporting practices scientists, advocates and politicians know we find morally suspect.
A great example occurred in 2006, when Missouri was embroiled over Amendment 2, which proposed a “ban on human cloning.” The purported ban on cloning, however, was anything but. A brazen fraud, Amendment 2 redefined human cloning to mean only the implantation of a cloned embryo. It did nothing to ban the creation of cloned human embryos. Creating cloned human embryos with the intention of destroying them for embryonic stem cells thus remained legal.
The Kansas City Star, which supported Amendment 2, began calling embryonic stem cells “early stem cells” to cover up the fact these cells come from the destruction of human embryos.
The artifice worked, and citizens added the “ban on human cloning” amendment into the Missouri Constitution. The irony is that scientists in Missouri now have a constitutional right to clone as many human embryos as they want — hardly a ban on human cloning.
This deceptive tactic is now being employed with new fertility techniques that create embryos with three genetic parents, collectively called “mitochondrial replacement” (MR).
We all have a small amount of DNA outside of the nucleus in all of our cells. This small piece of DNA is found in our mitochondria, little organelles in every cell that produce the energy we need to live. This mitochondrial DNA is often referred to as mtDNA.
We inherit all of our mtDNA from our mothers. If a woman has a mutation in her mtDNA that causes mitochondrial disease, she cannot help but pass the disease on to her children.
In an attempt to “prevent” mitochondrial disease, scientists have developed MR. In one MR technique, a donor egg with normal mitochondria has its nucleus removed. Then the nucleus of a woman with mutations in her mtDNA is placed inside the donor egg, creating an egg with genetic material from two different women. That egg is then fertilized in the laboratory. The resulting embryo has the genetic material of three people, two women and one man.
Three-parent embryos are genetically modified, carrying a combination of DNA that could not happen naturally. This germ-line modification will not only affect the resulting embryo: It will be passed down to every successive generation as well.
A recent paper in Science reveals there is little data on the safety of MR, as only a few primates have been made with the technique, and none of these have reached adulthood. The authors of the paper point out that animal studies indicate MR can change the expression of genes in the nucleus and may affect “individual development, cognitive behavior and key health parameters.”
The Catholic Church teaches that this type of germ-line genetic engineering is morally wrong not only because it creates human life in a dish, but also because of the risks involved. Regarding germ-line modifications, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2008 instruction Dignitas Personae states, “It is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny.”
Due to the ethical considerations of genetically modifying humans for future generations, many countries have laws against germ-line genetic engineering in humans, including the United Kingdom.
To move forward with MR, the law in the U.K. has to be changed. The government asked for public input, and when asked if the law should be changed to allow MR to proceed to the clinical level, more than 52% of respondents said, “No.”
People all over the globe are concerned — not only about the safety of the technique, but also that allowing germ-line modifications for MR will open the door to more invasive genetic engineering. There is a legitimate fear that MR is a step toward “designer babies.”
Despite the majority of U.K. respondents indicating they did not want the law changed, in a statement about the survey, the U.K. fertility authority said there was “broad support” in the public for MR.
Now, the government has quietly changed the definition of genetic modification to exclude MR. Buried in the middle of a 47-page report by the Department of Health, released in July, is:
“While the government accepts the techniques do result in germ-line modification, in that the result of mitochondrial donation — the avoidance of the transmission of a serious mitochondrial disease — will be passed down to future generations, it has consistently rejected claims that the techniques constitute genetic modification and remains firmly of that view.”
The Department of Health now considers only changes to the DNA in the nucleus to be genetic modification. The report further argues that MR is similar to blood transfusions or organ transplants, even though neither transfusions nor transplants can be passed down to children and grandchildren.
The Independent reported that the redefinition “is designed to take the sting out of hostility towards mitochondrial donation.”
Many leading scientists are calling foul. Lord Robert Winston, an in vitro fertilization specialist and MR supporter, told The Independent, “Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification, and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant, and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.”
University of Sussex biologist Ted Morrow warned, “My impression is the government is doing all it can to contain and define these kinds of terms in ways that favor mitochondrial replacement being introduced as an uncontroversial therapy.”
This covert move is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth,” where history is revised daily to manipulate the masses.
Make no mistake: MR is genetic modification. Regardless of how it is defined, this technique will cross a line and usher in an age where we as a society accept the genetic engineering of future generations without their consent.
The tinkering will not stop there, however. We cannot and will not stop the genetic engineering of children with MR — not when it is so easy to simply redefine genetic modification to exclude whatever new technique comes along.
Only a line drawn on principle can prevent this inevitable descent down the slippery slope. Namely, we must enact laws precluding the creation and manipulation of human life via techniques of biotechnology in the first place.
Our focus should be on treating those with mitochondrial disease, not on opening the Pandora’s box of germ-line genetic engineering.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics at her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.