Lord Carey has decided to make public his views on the creation of three-parent embryos. Or, more specifically, to make public his views on anyone who has the temerity to oppose their creation.
These new treatments will, he assures us, end great suffering and the scientists behind it are trustworthy, responsible, caring and compassionate. In contrast, opponents are irrelevant flat-earthers, trapped in both fear and doubt about medical advances.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury claims: ‘The truth is that in spite of a few reservations about whether hereditary characteristics would be affected by the technique, there are absolutely no grounds for opposition.’ (my emphasis).
Actually, the truth is, if he had done a little bit of reading and research, he would soon find that there are many scientists, ethicists, journalists, medical ethics councils and politicians around the world who oppose these techniques for a host of good reasons. Let me help him with a few:
‘The greater part of the scientific community maintain that the scientific data currently available is insufficient to even consider intervention on human subjects, and there cannot therefore be any guarantee for the safety of any eventual offspring’.
In other words, these techniques are completely experimental and there is an equal or arguably greater chance that they will tragically produce worse disorders, or early death.
Dr Paul Knoepfler, who is a little more qualified than Lord Carey to speak about the science (as Associate Professor at UC Davis School of Medicine, and a stem cell and developmental biology researcher) has warned the UK that developmentally disabled or deceased babies will likely be produced, based on past experiences and research:
‘Even if hypothetically this technology might help avoid some people from having mitochondrial disorders (and that’s a big if), the bottom line is that there is an equal or arguably greater chance that it will tragically produce very ill or deceased babies.’
So, not quite the ‘end to great suffering’ that Carey is hoping for.
Carey also fails to understand that these techniques are not actually ‘treatments’. The techniques aim to prevent babies being born with mitochondrial disorders, but they treat no-one alive now or who will continue to be born in the future with mitochondrial disorders.
In other words, they will do nothing for those already suffering from mitochondrial disorders or for those who will be born with them in the future. As another (qualified) scientist, Professor Stuart Newman, says:
‘This is not really a proposal for a therapy, it is a proposal for dangerous experimentation upon human beings’
Carey also fails to appreciate the long-term dangers of making changes to the germline, in that any adverse changes will be passed down all generations. Manipulating the germline has long been opposed by Governments worldwide, and by international bodies, viewed as a Rubicon not to cross. Indeed, 55 Italian MPs are so ‘profoundly alarmed’ about germline engineering that they wrote this weekend to the UK warning how dangerous, irreversible and uncontrollable such genetic modifications would be (and another 50 MEPs also wrote, to warn it may not even be legal).
But Carey clearly has complete faith in our scientists, who are ‘responsible’, ‘caring’ and ‘compassionate’. Of course many are, but others can tend towards overhype. He must have forgotten that in 2008 we were reliably informed by many scientists that new research on hybrids was: ‘an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time millions of people.’ 223 charities urged the then Prime Minister to permit it. Yet those hugely overblown claims never came to pass, hybrid research has never worked and investors have not funded it. One gets a sense of deja vue.
Does Carey really think that only he and other proponents of these experiments hold the high ground on compassion? Does he think that people who oppose them want to see children suffering from mitochondrial disorders, which range in severity but can occasionally lead to terrible disorders, including early death? Does he genuinely think opponents do not want cures or to see the lives of those who suffer being improved?
Or is this just a way of hiding behind facetious (and false) statements, so as not to face up to the real reasons why so many people – including many scientists – are opposed to using these particular techniques on humans? Which is that they are unsafe, unnecessary, unethical and are not even treatments.
What is the real drive behind this experimental research that may possibly help between 10-150 women per year (the numbers are estimates based on data no-one can verify) assuming researchers can pay (sorry, ‘compensate’) sufficient young healthy egg donors, to have genetically-related children free of mitochondrial disease, when there are other available options? Apart from kudos for researchers and the money and investment that would bring (assuming it works and does not follow the hybrid dead end), manipulation of the genome would then be regarded as acceptable for other disorders and purposes. Perhaps, as proposed last week, it could be used for older infertile women to have children, or for same sex couples, or to carry out other genetic engineering, or ultimately to allow human cloning for reproductive purposes.
The sad irony of it though is that all this investment and pursuit of medical advances in this research – time, money , resources – for a few women would be better spent on other public health goals that would actually benefit considerably more people. In other words, t his experimental research is very likely to do a lot more harm than good, in so many ways. That’s why, Lord Carey, we oppose it.