Genetic Progress? image

Genetic Progress?

Today the House of Commons is likely to vote in favour of allowing the creation of 'three-parent children'.

I made a few comments about this development at the time of the public consultation two and a half years ago (on my personal blog: one of the very last posts there before I moved exclusively to Think), and would still maintain the concerns I had then.

There are specific ethical concerns about three-parent babies, largely centred around understandings of human personhood, but the larger issue is probably the nature of scientific ‘progress’ in the area of genetics. As quoted on the BBC,

Prof Doug Turnbull, the director of the Wellcome Trust centre for mitochondrial research where the technique was pioneered, urged MPs to vote in favour.
He told BBC News: “This is research that has been suggested by the patients, supported by patients and is for the patients, and that’s an important message.”

It’s an important message, but I think it is probably somewhat disingenuous, implying as it does that genetic scientists would never have considered such technologies if hordes of patients had not been knocking at their lab doors. The reality is that the drive for new genetic techniques is remorseless and genetic technology is not simply so benign as to invest what has been invested purely for the benefit of 150 couples a year.

As I noted recently in connection with IVF, scientists have a vested interest in pushing genetic technologies as far as they possibly can. Following that post, a couple I know told me of the distinct change of tone in the consultant they were seeing when they refused the option of IVF - and this is by no means an isolated incident: to refuse the science is to offend not only the scientist but the scientists god. Of course, few scientists are honest enough to admit this, so the science is always sold on the line that it is ‘the compassionate thing to do’ and that ‘testing has been rigorous and the technique is safe’: though ‘safe’ tends to be defined within very narrow limits.

It’s not even as though I resent geneticists wanting to push ahead with new techniques: I understand the thirst for breakthrough and the quest for knowledge. But it would all have much more integrity were someone like Prof Turnbull to say something like, “We’re just really excited about what we’re going to be able to do and want to keep pushing as hard and as far as we can - but what does society think about these developments?”

As a result of today’s vote, 150 couples a year could be helped, yes. And it doesn’t mean we are producing lab-grown designer babies, no. But every step leads to another step. That’s not even a slippery slope: it’s just science. Science is remorseless in it’s desire for progress, and in the end remorseless progress is probably not the best vehicle for a truly compassionate society.

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