UK Embryology Authority’s Inconsistent Ethics on Three Parent IVF

geneticengineeringIn today’s society everything seems turned around. Black is white. White is black. You would think nothing would surprise me anymore, but it does, especially in the realm of reproductive medicine.

The United Kingdom’s authority on reproductive medicine, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has called the creation of embryos with three genetic parents “not unsafe” in the attempt to move the procedure to the clinic. I have written extensively about the technique and its safety issues before.

The HFEA does not recommend that testing be done in primates. That would be unethical. Jessica Cussins, in the Huffington Post, exposes the report that states that the HFEA thinks continuing with testing the procedure in primates raises ethical issues:

Although this review is focused on the science, it is an ethical concern to carry out experiments on animals, especially non-human primates, if these are likely to not be informative.

But they do want to continue testing the procedure on human embryos. They need to see if a mixture of mitochondria from the donor woman and the woman with mitochondrial disease will cause a problem. Also they want to see if three-parent embryos have normal gene expression. Until researchers are satisfied, no doubt none of these experimental embryos will ever see the inside of a uterus.

So it is ethical to create and destroy human embryos for these studies, but not animal embryos. Cussins asks, “Does that imply that the decision makers are exercising less caution with humans?” I have no doubt that is the case.

Also it seems that the HFEA thinks that it is ethical to make children experiments in general since no embryo studies will ever prove the technique is safe for the long term. A fact they openly acknowledge:

“Until a healthy baby is born, we cannot say 100 percent that these techniques are safe,” said Dr. Andy Greenfield, who chaired the expert panel behind the report.

The child is the experiment and will be for his or her entire life since birth will not be the end of possible adverse outcomes. It will only be the beginning.

What happens when a healthy child is not developing in the womb? Like in so many other reproductive technologies, I suspect abortion will be the fail-safe. If something goes wrong, just get rid of the child and start over until you get that “healthy child.” Without abortion we would never continue on with such experimentation for fear of having to face the consequences of what we have done to the children.

The HFEA also acknowledges the dangers of this type of genetic engineering. This three-parent technique is a germ-line modification, one that will be passed on to future generation. They admit that this procedure may put a girl in the very same position as her mother, faced with passing on a genetic condition:

The panel strongly recommends that permission is sought from the parents of the children born from MST or PNT to be followed up for an extensive period… any female born following MST or PNT should be advised, when old enough, that she may herself be at risk of having a child with a significant level of mutant mtDNA, putting her child, and if female, subsequent generations at risk of mitochondrial disease.

The difference between mother and daughter, of course, will be that the daughter will know she was an experiment and whatever she passes on was done to her deliberately.

Going forward with the three-parent technique, even if it seems like a good idea, will cement the “try it first and worry about the consequences later” methodology of reproductive medicine where children are the experiment. This will open the door to more invasive modifications to chromosomes; modifications that will affect not only the first child, but every generation after.

The HFEA is willing to experiment on embryos and children and open the door to even more radical human genetic engineering for only about a dozen women a year that could benefit from such a technique.

What happened to curing and treating disease? How about focusing on treatments for mitochondrial disease instead of embarking on unethical human experimentation and opening a Pandora’s box of human genetic engineering?

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.