In U.K.’s Brave New World, It Will Take Three to Make a Baby

Pro-life advocates question why the British parliament is in such a rush to approve a controversial, life-destroying IVF medical procedure.

(photo: Shutterstock)

LONDON — “This is primarily a very sad moment for ethics and science in the United Kingdom,” said Josephine Quintavalle, founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a pro-life public interest group. “We should bear in mind that what is being proposed is the creation of a new kind of human embryo.”

Quintavalle was commenting to the Register after the British parliament voted Feb. 3 in favor of the creation of babies with DNA from two women and one man. The medical procedure, developed in Newcastle, England, will be used to prevent serious genetic diseases being passed from mother to child. Britain is the first country to legislate in favor of such technology.

But opponents warn that the science involves the destruction of an embryo, that it heralds “genetically modified” babies and that it will ultimately lead to eugenics. Some called the vote a “historic mistake,” noting the technique has yet to undergo clinical trials and that no one knows in advance the effect it might have on the child or other unintended consequences.

The technique involves mitochondria, tiny compartments with their own DNA found inside nearly every cell of the body, which convert food into usable energy. Defective mitochondria, passed down only from the mother, can lead to brain damage, muscle wasting, heart failure and blindness.

This new procedure is a modified version of in vitro fertilization — something that the Church has consistently rejected because it dissociates the sexual act from the procreative act and also because it routinely involves the destruction of human embryos —  which involves combining two embryos, one from a donor woman, to produce an embryo with properly functioning mitochondria, resulting in the destruction of the embryo created from the donor egg.

The procedure takes 0.1% of the donor woman’s DNA and inserts that into the surviving embryo, resulting in a permanent genetic change that would be passed down through the generations.

A second, related technique, called maternal spindle transfer, involves the manipulation of the egg cell outside of the womb, combining egg cells from two different women but not the destruction of an embryo.


‘A Moral Boundary’

“The objective to try and cure a very serious disease carried by the mother is, of course, a legitimate goal, but how this is achieved cannot be allowed in a moral vacuum with no ethical restrictions,” said Quintavalle. “Changing the human germline is a moral boundary we should never cross.”

She said not only is genetic modification absolutely prohibited and written into many international statements, none of the current proposals in the U.K. would cure the mitochondrial disease itself.

“The mother carrying the disease in the first place is not cured, and many more like her will continue to appear randomly in the population,” she said. “Not all the children of carriers themselves are afflicted by the disease, but those who are born with mitochondria disease (and it comes in many different degrees — not one clearly defined condition) would not be cured, just not allowed to be born.” She added that the very process of abnormal manipulation of the embryo involved in this new technique “could itself cause added abnormalities.”

Luca Volontè, chairman of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a pro-life think tank, said that through “modifying the person” in such a way, “personhood is diluted, the human body is commoditized, and scientific practice gallops towards the normalization 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 latent evil hiding under the outer aspect of ‘something good,’” he said.


Supporters’ Arguments

Those affected by mitochondrial disease welcomed the news. Sharon Bernardi, who lost seven children to genetic disease, told the BBC she was “overwhelmed” by the parliamentary approval. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who lost his 7-year-old son to cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, voted in favor of the legislation, saying he had “every sympathy” with parents who suffer in this way.

And speaking in defense of the science, Frank Dobson, a former U.K. health secretary, argued uncertainty was “the nature of medicine and science” and that IVF would not have gone ahead if absolute certainty was needed, the BBC reported.

Cameron insisted the new technology is “not playing God with nature” and compared it to “a kidney donation or a lung donation, rather than some sort of fundamental change that is being made.” He acknowledged that few parents are affected, but said if they are to have healthy children, “we need to make this change.”

Opponents firmly rejected the arguments. “It is absurd to suggest it is like donating a kidney or having a blood transfusion,” Lord David Alton of Liverpool told the Register. “This changes the genetic heritage of future generations and is permanent and irreversible.”

The pro-life politician added that one of the two procedures involves “further destruction of human embryos,” and he stressed that Britain has “already destroyed or experimented on more than two million human embryos and permitted the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.”

Lord Alton pointed out that Britain is legalizing a procedure banned throughout the world — including the People’s Republic of China, “which banned it after an experiment which went badly wrong,” he said.


Why the Rush?

The three-parent legislation, which was rushed through the House of Commons, has yet to be completely passed. The House of Lords will vote on it later this year, but it’s expected to go through.

The first such baby could be born next year, and estimates suggest 150 three-parent babies could be born each year, according to the BBC. Lord Alton said “stampeding” these proposals through parliament “brings no credit to the legislature or to the United Kingdom.”

But given the strength of opposition to the new techniques, many are asking how the parliament so readily approved of it by 382 votes for to 128 against and why there was seemingly little resistance in the scientific community.

David Amess, a British Catholic politician, told the Register that during his 32 years in parliament he has seen “huge changes in terms of the shrinking of the pro-life representation in parliament,” and so the result didn’t surprise him. The overriding view is that “if this procedure means this terrible disease will be defeated, it’s a price worth paying,” he said.

Parliamentarians, he added, “didn’t want to speak about the morality of having three human beings because that is really part of the overall agenda: two men having children, two women having children — anything goes.”

But Amess believes the predominant cause is financial. “It’s absolutely about business,” he said. Lord Alton agrees, saying the debate has been “driven by the lucrative bio-tech industry,” but also by an “arrogant conceit, which accuses anyone who questions the probity of what is intended of scientific illiteracy and religious zealotry.”


Scientist’s Perspective

Writing in December in The Huffington Post, Stuart Newman —  a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, who is not from a faith base but is considered to be one of the world’s top embryology scientists — said “a kind of omertà [sinister silence] among scientists and bioethicists” has prevented the “gravity of these alterations” becoming better known among regulators and the press.

Professor Newman warned the “health implications and the eugenic outcomes these procedures would enable are too great to ignore.”

Quintavalle said she has a “feeling and a hope” this new procedure won’t work, but warns that the process of proving this will be “trial and error on human beings.” She remains, nevertheless, hopeful that more ethical scientific research “will find real cures for mitochondrial disease” and noted that “there are already such projects in the pipeline.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.