Last June Philippa James warned us that we were but a step away from creating genetically modified babies.
A report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the appointed regulatory body for embryo research and fertility treatment, which she alerted us to, had given the go-ahead to modify genetically human babies with genes from three parents.
Though the report avoided definitively declaring the new technique to be safe for humans, it less than honestly used a double negative wording to imply it was: ‘The evidence [the HFEA panel] has seen does not suggest that these techniques are unsafe.’
The report itself, Philippa told us, had revealed so many safety issues and concerns that the HFEA’s unqualified ‘yes’ to creating reconstituted human babies – the purpose of which is to avoid passing on debilitating and life-threatening mitochondrial disorders – beggared belief.
So had the HFEA’s other stated ideological and economic objectives (to give women and families reproductive choice and to put the UK at the cutting edge of medical techniques and attract outside investment) trumped safety concerns?
Philippa was also bothered about the report’s failure to consider the exploitation of the impoverished women egg donors – an inevitable part of this process – for the benefit of a wealthy minority who would be able to afford this treatment. It appeared to be an area of ethical consideration off the HFEA’s radar.
Now it is clear that she is far from alone in her concerns about the safety of the science. Leading international scientists are to warn a parliamentary enquiry this week that proposed experiments (that the UK alone in the world is planning to give the all clear to) to create babies with three genetic parents are a risk to humanity should not be allowed to go ahead.
The safety of mitochrondrial replacement therapy is not yet sufficiently well established, they say, to proceed to clinical trials.
New Scientist, too, has voiced serious doubts about the proposed ‘therapy’. It “..raises the ethically troubling prospect,” an editorial stated, “that children conceived this way will inherit vital traits from three parents”.
It is a view that is endorsed by Stuart Newman, a professor at New York Medical School and one of the world’s leading cell biology scientists who is to submit his objections next week. He said that the importance of the outer part of the egg, donated by the second woman, was being played down and that “…this clearly makes any person (so brought into being) a product of wholesale genetic engineering”.
Despite these concerns the HFEA is stubbornly persisting in its belief that the introduced genes from a third party will not alter the child’s characteristics, but would simply replace unhealthy genes with healthy ones. It is on record as saying it can “see no reason for its changing its in-depth and considered views on this matter”.
Well it does not take a science degree to see that there are many reasons which, at the very least, would justify the application of the precautionary principle.
Parliament still has the power to reject this proposed legislation. It must. It should vote to reign in the worryingly and stubbornly hubristic HFEA too.