Three Parent Babies and Mitochondrial Disease
MPs approve the human fertilisation regulations by 382 votes to 128 – a majority of 254. So common sense wins, although, I think, the number of no votes shows just how scientifically illiterate a large number of our politicians are. But very good news.
I’ve been following the debate about the so-called three parent babies with interest. In case anyone doesn’t know about it, it’s like this:
Some women have faulty mitochondria in their eggs. Mitochondria are the organelles that supply energy, in the form of the chemical ATP, for the cell. If they are faulty it means that the cells do not function very well due to lack of energy. Because these faulty mitochondria are in the eggs, any baby that grows from one of these eggs will have faulty mitochondria in every single cell of their body. For an estimated 300,000 people in the UK alone, this means a life of suffering and an early death, often in childhood, although a few people do live into early adulthood.
This disease is incurable, as it is a genetic disease of the mitochondria. This also needs explaining. All of the DNA that gives you your characteristics is located inside the nucleus of the cell. However, due to how our cells, called eukaryotic cells, originated, the mitochondria in our cells have their own, separate, DNA. All this DNA does is regulate the mitochondria; it has no effect on the characteristics that make us each unique people, apart from to cause disease when they are faulty. As we inherit our mitochondria from our mothers, this mitochondrial disease is only carried down the female line.
One possible “treatment” for this disease is for the woman who carries it to use donor eggs from another non-carrier woman. The male partner artificially inseminates the egg, which is implanted in the woman who wants a baby. One problem with this is that, even though it will produce a healthy baby, the baby will only carry it’s fathers’ genes, not the genes of the woman giving birth to it.
The new “three parent” treatment works as follows: a donor egg is used and its’ nucleus, the part that contains the genetic information of the donor, is removed. The nucleus from an egg of the soon-to-be mother (the egg with the faulty mitochondria) is inserted into the donated egg. The resulting egg has fully functioning mitochondria and the full genetic information of the mother. The controversy is that the mitochondria contain genetic information from the original donor. However, apart from maintaining the function of the healthy mitochondria, this genetic information plays no part in determining the characteristics of the new baby. It is, in every way, the genetic offspring of the mother and father.
This new, “three parent” treatment, if passed into law today during a free vote of Parliament, will allow mothers to give birth to babies that contain their own genes, just like everyone else does. The term “three parent” is a misnomer and extremely misleading and, I think, the main cause of all the ethical hoo-haa by the Catholic church and CofE, who oppose it on ethical and safety grounds.
So, let’s look at the safety grounds first, as that is the most important aspect of this. After various scientific bodies have spent the last three years looking into the research on this technique, and reported to the government, they have concluded that there are no serious safety issues with this treatment. The ethical considerations have also been exhaustively examined and, apart from the churches, the committees have recommended that the Government support the drawing up of legislation to regulate this treatment. The Government, having received the guidance of scientific and ethical committees, also supports this treatment. However, because of the potentially controversial aspects of this treatment, they have allowed a free vote in Parliament today about whether to give the go-ahead. If Parliament does vote in favour, Britain will be the only country in the world where this treatment will be legal.
The only place in the world where this will be legal? That sounds very worrying, doesn’t it? Actually, no. This is cutting edge research and, once again, Britain is at the forefront of this research. If it is passed into law it will open the floodgates for the rest of the world to offer this treatment to millions of people who have to either miscarry, have still-births, or watch their children slowly suffer and die of a debilitating disease that is now, hopefully, totally preventable. If the vote is not passed then, basically, meaningful research will come to a halt, as it needs to be tested in humans. The only way to test it is to actually do it and make a baby. All the indications from current research are, however, that this procedure will work and produce a perfectly healthy child. Obviously this is not 100% certain but, I think 99.999% is pretty good odds.
My motivation for writing this blog post is the segment on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning. A mother of a child with mitochondrial disease was discussing this issue, together with the Bishop of Swindon (I think) from the Church of England, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Tory MP for North East Somerset. Both of the latter persons were arguing against this treatment, and the mother, naturally, for.
The Bishop first: what a joke. The CofE is supposed to be against this on ethical and safety grounds. The hapless Bishop, I think, was personally for it as he was struggling so much to explain the church’s stance on this matter that it was painful to hear. He knew his Church’s stance was indefensible and just didn’t have the heart to put it across. It just goes to show how out of touch religion is with real life.
The Tory, though, was another matter. My best description of him is a typical Tory twat, totally out of touch with reality. He ignored the safety issues and went straight for what he called ethics. Now, I’m not an expert on ethics, I only have my gut feeling and conscience, but if this is Tory ethics he can keep them. He made my blood boil. His first argument was that there is already a “treatment” for this: artificially inseminated donor eggs. Yes, that will produce healthy babies, but what woman wants to go through the trauma of childbirth knowing that the resultant baby will not have any genetic identity with her? This is, of course, in the knowledge that there is now a treatment that can allow her to have genetic offspring.
But the main point of this Tory twat was, wait for it: What right do we have to stop this type of person from existing? You know, the type of person who will live a short, painful life and then die young. I’ve heard this argument before about other disabilities and, quite frankly, I find it totally horrific. I cannot believe that if you asked a disabled person whether, if his parents were able to prevent his disability from occurring in the first place but they should not do so, he would say yes. Under no circumstances am I devaluing the lives of disabled people, but who in their right mind would choose to have a life-limiting illness or disability if it could be prevented from occurring in the first place? This kind of ethical argument is one I find repulsive in the extreme. We, for the first time in human history, have the ability to prevent this serious and often terminal disease from occurring. How, in the name of humanity, can we ethically not do this? He continued with the slippery slope argument: If we do this what is to prevent us from doing other things? Things like, I suppose, so-called designer babies with their characteristics specifically chosen by their parents. Well actually, those very ethics and the consciences of the scientists and doctors who are developing these techniques to save lives. He also said this is germ-line therapy. Once done it cannot be reversed. Of course it can’t; who would want to revert from being healthy to having a terminal mitochondrial disease? The bloke is an idiot.
All I could hear while he was trotting out this tired argument was the recent: If we allow same-sex marriage where will it end? People marrying animals, brothers marrying sisters, etc? I’m sorry, but those arguments are rubbish, just as was his slippery slope argument against this revolutionary life saving new technique to prevent mitochondrial disease. Common sense and conscience will stop these things happening. And, if they do happen, they will forever be illegal and extremely uncommon.
There is the argument: just because we can do something, should we? In this case I think we have every right and, indeed, a duty to stop “these type of people”, i.e. those who will live short, miserable lives from a now preventable genetic condition, from existing in the future. Now, instead, those very people will be able to live normal lives and have normal lifespans. How can we not do this?
I’m sure people will say I’m naive in my thinking about this and I haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about. I haven’t studied ethics. To be honest it confuses me. All I have to go on is my gut feeling and the examination of my own conscience, and it says that the Members of Parliament have a duty to vote this bill through and allow doctors to transform the lives of millions of people all over the world. To me, it’s a no-brainer. But then, I’m just a politically confused atheist who just wants the best for as many people as possible.