“Faulty mitochondria can cause conditions such as Leigh’s disease, Progressive Infantile Polio dystrophy and Barth’s syndrome…”
Abortion. Euthanasia. IVF. All three have a common theme. That theme is the idea of life. These issues consistently evoke strong reactions in all and most laypersons will have an opinion either way. One of the most common counter-arguments to legalising voluntary euthanasia is the idea of the slippery slope.
If we do legalise euthanasia, will the system not ultimately be abused? Could it lead to a mechanism for killing off unwanted or irritating relatives? Or utilised in insurance scams? This in itself is a fair argument, and often has little rebuttal. However, in the case of the ‘Three Parent Babies’ debate, this argument appears to have little firm ground to stand on.
The past month has seen a move to drastically alter the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act by Parliament. The parliamentary debates have been focused on a move to make mitochondrial donation a legal process. In a historic vote, the Commons voted for the change in legislation by 382 votes to 128, with the Lords later passing the vote with an overwhelming majority of 240 to 48. The debate lasted a mere 90 minutes, suggesting just how urgently the amendments to the legislation is required.
Faulty mitochondria, which are passed from the mother, can cause conditions such as Leigh’s disease, Progressive Infantile Polio dystrophy and Barth’s syndrome. Indeed there is strong evidence linking faulty mitochondria to conditions such as Parkinson’s, deafness, failing eyesight, epilepsy and diabetes. The new legislation would allow for the faulty mitochondria to be replaced with a donor’s mitochondria instead. This is where the term ‘three parent babies’ has originated from.
The law’s current position is of some interest. The law currently permits some forms of somatic gene therapy by virtue of a regulation of Advanced Therapeutics, as contained in Regulation EC 1394/2007. However, germ-line therapy where genes are modified in a single cell embryo is expressly prohibited. Put simply, it is illegal to genetically alter an embryo.
“The slippery slope for this particular piece of legislation is that it opens the door for designer babies.”
S3(2) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 provides that it is illegal to place a genetically altered embryo into a woman. This almost shrewd legislation currently states that in order for an IVF created embryo to be implanted in a woman, neither the nucleus or mitochondrial DNA may be altered. The new legislation will in turn seek to amend this provision, which has indeed been altered in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 recently.
Since the vote to legalise this process has occurred, there has been substantial opposition across Europe, notably from Italian MEP’s, who have sought permission from the Commission to block the move by Parliament. Their argument is that the UK would be in breach of International obligations under the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, with Article 24 prohibiting Germ Line genetic manipulations expressly.
English MP’s have responded by comparing the process to changing the battery pack of humans. The article itself does not stipulate that germ line interactions are inevitably contrary to human dignity and therefore prohibited by Article 11, but merely that they could be. Furthermore, the fact that the nucleus DNA remains intact means that no breach could occur.
Perhaps the media’s ability to sensationalise issues is most clearly demonstrated here. The new legislation itself does not make mitochondrial donation a common legal practice across the UK. It merely gives IVF centres the opportunity to apply for a grant for a license to undertake Mitochondrial donation processes.
It is expected that the threshold will be high, with the couple seeking the license needing to prove that there is a risk that any egg might have mitochondrial abnormalities caused by abnormal mitochondrial DNA, that could ultimately lead to the development of a mitochondrial conditions. The regulations themselves set such a high threshold and standard, that the number believed to use this treatment will be minute. It is estimated that currently just over 100 babies born a year will be at risk of these conditions, at that the number of women who will conceive using IVF will be approximately 10% of this number.
“…parliament [have] signposted the way for the rest of the world to follow in legalising a practice whose benefits outweigh out the negatives.”
Upon a successful practice of the procedure, the ‘third mother’ would accrue no legal rights over the child. They would have no right to be involved in any form of upbringing or social care. This almost brutal approach of separation of parties by Parliament demonstrates the relative insignificant contribution of DNA that the donor would contribute. This indeed must be praised on the grounds of legal certainty.
As aforementioned whenever Parliament legislate on a contentious issue, dissenters will raise the argument of the slippery slope. The slippery slope for this particular piece of legislation is that it opens the door for designer babies. As the new legislation would make no alterations to the nucleus of the embryo, no characteristics of the third parent would be expressed. The nucleus is often considered to be sacrosanct, and even the most advanced and progressive medical practitioner would arguably be hesitant in allowing such a process.
Indeed if a move was made to even create a non-permitted embryo, a license would have to be granted by the HFEA to even debate the issue. This in itself would also require the 1990 and 2008 acts to be both repealed. Although not technically impossible, this is something that is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, just because you legalise one practice, does not automatically make a further advanced practice legal.
Parliament is often subject to scrutiny for failing to making the right decision, where the best thing to do is staring them blindly in the face. In this instance, they have facilitated the development of a medical practice that will rid thousands of horrific and cruel conditions. Regardless of what the sceptics say about what the legislation, it opens the door for parliament to signpost the way for the rest of the world to follow in legalising a practice whose benefits outweigh out the negatives.