PQRM Committee's Letter to Peers on Three-Parent Babies

Date: Friday, 27 February 2015
Author: Rev David M Blunt

(The letter copied below was sent last week to Peers by the Church's Public Questions, Religion & Morals Committee. Sadly in the vote on 24th February the Regulations to permit techniques which would create genetically-modified babies were backed by 280 to 48.)

21st February 2015

Dear Member of the House of Lords,

We write to ask you to attend the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations in the House of Lords on 24th February and to vote against the Regulations.

No doubt you have heard many arguments for and against these Regulations, some of them involving quite complex science. We would like to mention what we believe to be compelling reasons why these Regulations should be rejected:

1) The Regulations represent a dangerous leap into the unknown.

The ethical implications of the techniques which are to receive approval under these Regulations are frightening. They include children having to cope with the fact that they have multiple genetic parents and people facing the possibility of lifelong monitoring because the unproven techniques which were used upon them may have unthought-of consequences. There is also the danger of irreversibly altering the germ line – the series of cells which continues down through successive generations – potentially affecting descendants for all time to come in ways which are harmful. In addition there are serious safety issues associated with the mitochondrial transfer and modification of the mammalian egg and also with the process used to enable women to provide donor eggs. 

The truth is that our Parliament is on the threshold of legislating to permit the creation of a new type of human being. If it approves these Regulations then we will be the only country in the world to do so. Warning us against taking this step is the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights which states that ‘germ-line interventions’ could be considered as practices which are “contrary to human dignity”. There is also the well-known New Scientist magazine which has called for a halt to them because insufficient research has yet been carried out to assess the potential risks. These warnings should give us much pause for thought.

We find it alarming that many MPs wish to press ahead with genetically modified babies when they seem reluctant to allow genetically modified food (athough it is not illegal to do so as yet no genetically modified crops are grown commercially in the UK). We do not understand why politicians can be so decisive about the former while they are so hesitant about the latter. Surely the consequences of altering human beings must far exceed those of altering foodstuffs?

2) The Regulations are a further threat to the sanctity of human life.

The two techniques to be legalised under the Regulations, namely Maternal Spindle Transfer (MST) and Pro-Nuclear Transfer, (PNT) are not ‘ready for use’ and would require further experimentation on human embryos to perfect them, involving the destruction of those embryos. In addition the second of these procedures, in its routine operation, involves the creation of two embryos, both of which are ultimately destroyed.

We affirm that a human embryo is a human being rather than a resource for experimentation. For us this is a vital point and we believe it should weigh heavily with us all. Embryonic life is not less-than-human life but the first part of any person’s history – including our own – as we learn from the Bible: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret....Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13-16).

The only sensible, wise and indeed humane position for any society to take is that human life begins at conception when the embryo is formed. In the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), God places a garrison around vulnerable individuals and if we wilfully breach this safeguard we are bound to incur divine judgment. We find the idea of an embryo being treated as refuse to be disposed of deeply shocking in what is meant to be a civilised nation.

3) The Regulations will not achieve what many think they will achieve.

The advocates of the techniques to be legalised by the Regulations argue that creating genetically modified babies would solve the problem of the occurrence of a disease transmitted in the mitochondria (small organelles found in most cells) of some women. Some moving instances of people who might be helped by the new technologies have been presented by a largely sympathetic media. We do not diminish the anguish of potential parents coping with this situation. However it must be understood that neither of the proposed techniques represents a cure for mitochondrial disease: the disease will still to continue to appear randomly at birth and children born with the disease will not be helped.

The techniques would only be applied to families already identified as being at risk of conceiving a baby with mitochondrial disease. While we sympathise with their plight we believe that there is growing tendency to assume that we all have an automatic ‘right’ to what we may sometimes think everyone else has, especially health and happiness. None of us has that right, especially if it is enjoyed at the expense of other human beings, in this case potential descendants and the embryos which will be destroyed.

4) The Regulations would very likely lead to demands for so-called ‘designer babies’.

MST involves creating a human being with three genetic parents. PNT involves the creation of two embryos, both of which are ultimately destroyed, to create a third human being with four genetic parents. Should we not instinctively recoil at this sort of manipulation? As a sign of things to come we learn that since the House of Commons approved these Regulations on 3rd February scientists at Newcastle University where these techniques have been developed have already begun offering women willing to donate their eggs the sum of £500. Such a move shows a great disrespect to the House of Lords which has not even considered these Regulations yet. More importantly we can see the beginning of a slippery slope whereby humanity loses its God-given dignity and becomes a commodity instead. 

However they are being presented these Regulations would legalise a form of ‘eugenics’ – the engineering of the genetic make-up of our fellow human beings. Replacing mitochondrial DNA might have unforeseen impacts on personal traits and so the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine states that “an intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants” (italics ours). What may be intended as a benign measure to help some tragic cases may soon be employed for sinister purposes. It is a road we should not even begin to travel down.

For these and other reasons we respectfully urge you to be present in the House of Lords on Tuesday and to vote against these Regulations.

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely,

Rev. David Blunt (Convener)