Dr Gregory Farrelly FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013
Science and Religion News
Splashed across the media pages recently has been the news that the UK is to allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people, a procedure that could be offered within two years. Experts say that “three-person IVF” could eliminate debilitating and potentially fatal mitochondrial diseases that are passed on from mother to child, affecting one in every 6,500 babies. This can leave them starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most extreme cases.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was mentioned in this column in the May/June issue. It is the DNA located in biological structures called mitochondria, not the DNA contained within the cell nucleus which we normally think of when we refer to “my DNA”. The purpose of mtDNA is to convert chemical energy from food into a form that the cell can use.
In the technique under discussion, sperm from the father, an egg from the mother and an egg from a female donor are use to produce embryos, using IVF techniques. The cell nuclei are removed from both sets of embryonic cells, as shown in the diagram, the donor’s nuclei and the remains of the parents’ embryo are destroyed and the parents’ nuclei are then inserted into the donor or "host" embryo, still containing its healthy mitochondria. The resulting embryo is implanted and a healthy baby (at least as regards mitochondrial diseases) should be born.
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Centre for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, has written in Nature magazine (Vol 499, Issue 7457), that this crosses “…a legal and ethical line on this issue that has been observed by the entire international community. This consensus holds that genetic-engineering tools … should not be used to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children.”
Defenders of the technique argue that these concerns do not apply to modifications of mitochondrial DNA, described as an insignificant part of the human genome that does not affect a person’s identity. However, Darnovsky points out that the genes involved affect development and metabolism – very much linked to personal identity. She further notes that the HFEA has not been honest in stating that a public consultation showed “broad support” for the technique; in fact, a majority were opposed to it.
To set this in context, only about 10 couples a year would benefit from the treatment, and this technique does nothing to help existing patients with mitochondrial conditions. However, it opens the door still further to a eugenic approach to the selection of embryonic characteristics.
Pro-life activists are often dismissed for, among other things, “scaremongering”, but the HFEA has a record of producing reassuring statements indicating that future unethical procedures will not take place, only for them to be approved. An article in The Telegraph (16 July 2013) informs us that Stephen Wilkinson, professor of bioethics at Lancaster, has produced a report that found “no reason to expect harm to future children or wider society if these techniques were made available for ‘social’ reasons … We didn’t find any ethical arguments sufficient to justify a blanket ban on … sex selection.”
As has often been argued in this column and elsewhere, we cannot treat scientific thought and research as somehow isolated from our faith. Our faith in Christ is not "merely" a personal choice but also an assertion with metaphysical importance. For us, Christ is the Master-Key of all creation, linking all being, material and spiritual, as its Logos or raison d’être: the universe is for Christ – nothing is "neutral" to God.
The scientists involved in this technique are, no doubt, acting mostly from good motives, to improve the health of future generations, yet the ends never justify the means. The ethical framework for biological science must be based on the same principles of truth and meaning by which we as Christians judge all things, material and spiritual. The Faith movement holds that there is an all-pervasive Meaning within the material universe; nothing is arbitrary or expedient, but purposeful and life-affirming.
It is easy to feel passive in the face of the relentless advance of morally repugnant scientific techniques, but we must “stand up and be counted”, protesting strongly and rationally about what we know to be wrong.