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If it is safe, then we should not prevent families using it

My Times column on Britain’s impending decision to allow mitochondrial donation:

Tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow mitochondrial donation has at least flushed out the churches. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have decided that it is not acceptable to let a handful of desperate families apply to the authorities to be allowed to have their own children free of the risk of rare mitochondrial conditions that, in the words of one parent, “strip our children of the skills they have learnt and tire their organs one by one until they fail”.

What conceivable greater moral good overrides the need of such families? I suspect some clerics have gone no further into the science behind this than the headline “Three-parent children”, and said “Yuk!” If so, they have been horribly misled. There has rarely been a more inaccurate phrase.

The DNA inside the mitochondrion, a tiny organ inside each of our cells, is used only to make and run the mitochondrion. So even if you wanted to make your child into, say, a musical prodigy, you could not do so by altering his or her mitochondrial DNA.

That DNA is 500 [this should be more like 200,000: there are 16,000 base pairs of DNA in a mitochondrion, 3 billion in a haploid nucleus; the gene ratio is more like 500] times less in quantity than the DNA that runs the rest of the body and contains only 37 of our 22,000 genes. It is barely any more relevant to your personality than the bacteria in your gut. To call somebody with donated mitochondria a three-parent child is like calling somebody with a kidney transplant a three-person chimera, for the gene ratio is the same: 0.2 per cent.

What is being suggested is a microscopic transplant. Admittedly, it is a transplant that prevents horrible diseases recurring in future generations, too, but what’s so immoral about that?

The churches’ main argument is that we should not be rushing into this without proper consultation and review. Rushing? This has been debated and studied for seven years. There have been three independent reviews of the safety and efficacy plus many discussions of the ethics.

The opponents of new technologies are always saying things have been rushed, as they did with fracking last week. It’s the last refuge of the person who wants to oppose something but has seen all his arguments shot down. And the change in the law will not create a free-for-all but merely allow clinicians to apply to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a licence. So each case will be scrutinised and approved by scientists, lawyers and ethicists, who are more competent to do so than your average MP.

Ever since Baroness Warnock’s pioneering report on embryo research in 1984, Britain has regulated advances in genetics and embryology by having parliament set the overall ethical and social tone, then devolving the detail to the HFEA, an approach that is internationally admired. The church is effectively asking parliament to be a regulator of medical research and practice.

Shockingly, I understand that Doug Turnbull, the Newcastle University scientist leading the mitochondrial research, had not once been invited by the archbishops’ council — which advised the Church of England on this decision — to present his case to them before they issued their fatwa against mitochondrial donation. Knowing this debate was coming (and, if passed by the Commons, it reaches the Lords in three weeks), I went to meet Professor Turnbull, toured his lab and asked him some searching questions.

I listened to him presenting his case in parliament twice. I saw no bishop there on either occasion.

Or maybe our clerics are worried about slippery slopes and thin ends of wedges. In that case they could go back and read what people said about heart transplants and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD; that is the selection of healthy embryos for IVF). Those debates were full of blood-curdling warnings about what they might lead to. As soon as people could choose donors, or pick embryos, they would be off to the eugenic sperm bank in search of superior genomes for designer babies, so the pessimists insisted.

No: it turned out that people want to use IVF largely to have their own children and to avoid horrid diseases. Transplants, IVF and PGD have generated happiness on an almost industrial scale with almost no ethical downsides.

The slope just isn’t slippery. We’ve gone down it gradually and carefully if at all because life is better nearer the bottom.

The part that surprises me most about this debate is that it is some Conservative MPs who are leading the charge against mitochondrial transplant therapy. I thought the whole point of being a Conservative was that, as far as possible, you believed in leaving decisions to individuals and families rather than the state. If you think people should be free to choose their schools, you might also think they can be free to choose healthy mitochondria for their children.

Here are parents unable to have children without painful afflictions, saying that they would like the chance to try a procedure that will remove that risk. It is surely rational to say that, if the state considers the procedure safe, it is up to those families to decide whether they wish to try the procedure. How can politicians or priests possibly know what is best for mothers in this position?

Here is what a parent, Alison Maguire, says: “For families like us, the consideration of risk is very different from those who object from the sidelines with no real understanding of this disease.”

She points out that the remote risk of something going wrong in later life for one of the donee children has to be weighed against the vast risk they now run of a much worse outcome. “This is a risk that many of our families would jump at the chance to take, as actually it is not a risk at all, for us it is hope.”

In the run-up to this debate, I found it hard to believe that anybody, however strong their religious convictions, would fail to be swayed by the facts once they knew just how carefully this work has been assessed from every angle. Surely, I thought, most church-going folk are not in the business of denying people hope merely to avoid the remote theoretical possibility of — well, of what, exactly? I still cannot see a reasonable objection to this magnificent piece of technology in the service of human compassion. I hope that when it reaches the Lords some bishops say so.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times