The moral argument for three-person babies


7th February 2015

If all goes according to plan, the first baby with the DNA of three people will be British, and could be born next year. Mitochondrial transfer could end years of misery for some couples and prevent appalling conditions being passed on to the next generation. Some scientists have raised concerns that it’s such uncharted territory that the babies could be born with disabilities or genetic defects, but the majority are happy that the research has been through necessary reviews. Melanie McDonagh and Isabel Hardman have drawn attention to the breakneck speed with which MPs voted to legalise the procedure. Parliament should act as a national conscience, and we don’t want them essentially outsourcing complex decisions to experts. The Church objected because the process destroys embryos but in the last few decades we’ve become more blasé about that. Arguments about the sanctity of life were lost years ago – trying to bring them up again will have you laughed out of parliament like Nadine Dorries – but it’s still worth having them. The Spectator has generally been quite suspicious of biotechnology and embryo science. In the 1980s, the philosopher Baroness Warnock chaired an inquiry into human fertilisation and embryology. Andrew Gimson was not impressed:

As an exercise in building a fence, and then sitting on it, the Warnock Report is a triumph…The Committee members recognise, as they could hardly avoid doing, that there is a diversity of feeling on the issues they have investigated. But they observe amid this diversity a common desire for ‘some principles or other to govern the development and use of the new techniques …. A society which had no inhibiting limits … would be a society without moral scruples. And this nobody wants’. So we know what they are looking for ‘inhibiting limits’ — and can see at once that the quest will be a difficult one, not unlike looking for natural frontiers to a country without them. As soon as they have rejected the absolute positions — no tampering with human embryos, unlimited tampering — they are committed to drawing a line on the map, not a map without features but one which lacks sufficiently definite features to constitute clear boundaries. The development of an unborn human being is continuous: no natural line of defence exists.

One difficulty is that spare embryos tend to be produced at the in vitro stage: what is to be done with them? …The Committee considers research carried out on living human embryos. There is not room to give the many luminous observations made by the Committee on this subject, but some, certainly, which the daily press has failed to cite, should be brought to the attention of Spectator readers: ‘The embryo of the human species ought to have a special status.’ Hurrah for Dame Mary! ‘The embryo of the human species should be afforded some protection in law.’ Oh bravely said. ‘We accordingly recommend that no live human embryo derived from in vitro fertilisation, whether frozen or unfrozen, may be kept alive, if not transferred to a woman, beyond 14 days after fertilisation.’ Ah well. Bad luck those of you that didn’t make it. The unnatural frontier falls at 14 days. But don’t be excessively alarmed: the Committee is strongly opposed to an import/export trade in human embryos. You will be experimented upon without taint of filthy lucre, and by British scientists.

A couple of years later, The Spectator raised suspicions about an organisation called the ‘Voluntary Licensing Authority (VLA) for human in vitro fertilisation and embryology’, which had just issued its first report:

The report marks the official acceptance of the term ‘pre-embryo’. Even the Warnock Committee talked of embryos, not ‘pre-embryos’. Eminent embryologists who all their lives thought that the product of conception was an embryo are suddenly said to have been labouring under a misapprehension…The embryos on which Warnock and the VLA allow experiments are henceforth to be known by the experimenters as ‘pre-embryos’. We do not doubt that they believe there to be good scientific justification for this term. But to the extent that it is intended to disguise the fact that human life develops continuously from the moment of conception, it is thoroughly dishonest.

But we cannot criticise the VLA for avoiding the central question: are experiments on human embryos morally acceptable? The Government itself has avoided that question, because it is difficult. The House of Commons, to its credit, has not avoided the question: the reception it gave to Mr Enoch Powell’s Bill suggests that most MPs find experiments on human embryos morally unacceptable. Before such experiments become as much a fait accompli as experiments on guinea pigs or mice, the House of Commons should be allowed to pronounce. This Friday, Mr Ken Hargreaves attempts to get a second reading for a Private Member’s Bill substantially the same as Mr Powell’s. Instead of allowing his Bill to fail for want of time, the Government ought to find the House all the time it needs to legislate on a subject too important to be left to scientific committees.

In 1990, parliament was considering the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill to regulate infertility treatments and to decide whether experiments on embryos should be allowed. James Le Fanu didn’t think they should be:

John Maddox is the highly intelligent editor of the scientific journal Nature. Back in 1985 when Enoch Powell’s Unborn Children (Protection) Bill was making its way through the Commons — a rehearsal of the legislation to be debated next week — Mr Maddox became very worried that the case in favour of experiments might be lost by default.

So, in an ‘Appeal to Embryologists’, he asked for ‘synopses of proposed investigations on human embryos, with a succinct account of their objectives and why these might be attainable, and an explanation of why human as distinct from other mammalian embryos are necessary’…Five years later, Mr Maddox is still waiting for one proposal worth publishing.

Professor Robert Winston argues that embryo experiments hold the key to improving the low success rate of in vitro fertilisation, by which method only 10 per cent of attempts develop into a full term pregnancy. He would be right if the limiting factor were the fertilisation of the embryo. But this has never been a problem…The limiting factor remains the receptivity of the uterus — how to ensure the embryo, once replaced, implants and stays there. Experiments on the embryos themselves have nothing to contribute to the problem. 

Professor Winston has argued that ‘it is vitally important that genetic diseases should be studied with the help of embryo research’…The only circumstance in which embryo experiments might be relevant to genetic diseases would be if it became possible by genetic engineering to prevent them, not by aborting the abnormal, but by replacing the defective gene prior to implantation. This prospect remains so distant, and the possible consequences of interfering with the genome at the early stage so dire, that few doubt it will ever be a realistic possibility.

Mitochondrial transfer, the process endorsed this week in parliament, turned out to be a realistic possibility, and the draft law will give some couples an otherwise impossible chance of having healthy children. But there is something chilling about the fact that the argument was over and done with in an hour and a half. There was perhaps a sense that the ethical arguments had been discussed; once you’ve been through it all for IVF and experiments on embryos, why go over the same vexed ground all over again? The moral argument for three-person babies is utilitarian (if you can make people happy, why not?), which is probably a good way to behave in government. But a 2003 editorial about biotechnology pointed to an older morality:

Those who mistrust the new biotechnology have always argued that if it is technologically possible to do something, sooner or later it will be done. As far as the fundamentals of human existence are concerned, the Promethean bargain is a bad one. It is not necessary to deny the potential benefits to humanity of the new biotechnology to be deeply disturbed by the claim of Brigitte Boisselier to have successfully cloned a human being for the first time…Miss Boisselier’s claim is disturbing even if, as is quite likely, it turns out to be unjustified; for it casts a lurid light on a scientific underworld of competition to do what ought never to be done but which someone almost certainly will do. And what is true of cloning is true also of all other possible biotechnologies — for example, the creation of designer babies. The genie will not easily be returned to the bottle.

Choice is good, but not infinite choice. To have infinite choice is no better than to be coerced. The person who thinks he can choose everything is not merely like a spoilt child; he is deluding himself…Seen in this light, in vitro fertilisation, which is clearly at the more acceptable end of the spectrum of the new biotechnology and has brought happiness to some, might have constituted technical progress, but it also represented moral retrogression. Not only was it a step on the road to cloning, but it undoubtedly encouraged people to think that to have a child was a right, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If anything desirable is technically possible, everyone has a right to it; furthermore, all discrimination over who is permitted to exercise that right is forbidden, because discrimination is one of the only moral prohibitions in a world shorn of acceptance of limitations.

Those who cannot forgo any possible advantages are destined for incalculable harms. Of course, any limitation placed upon the fulfilment of desire will be attacked as arbitrary, unjust, hypocritical and cruel. But the road to hell is paved with an infinitude of choices, none of which leads to lasting satisfaction.