I was absolutely delighted this past week to see parliament vote to legalise the practice of creating a ‘3-parent baby’. I think it’s absolutely fantatsic that the UK has taken this step in becoming the first ever country to do so, and I really think that this shows what a world-leader we are; not just in terms of our willingness to try new ideas in the pursuit of helping people, but also purely in terms of scientific progress. Watching the debate that preceded the vote however, I was genuinely worried that the MP’s wouldn’t see things quite that way.
Because the transfer of a nucleus from one cell with mitochodrial disease to another leaves behind a teensy bit of genetic information (37 genes as opposed to 20,000+ in the nucleus), some people can get a little freaked out that we’re designing babies, playing God, subverting nature, stepping onto a slippery slope etc (for the full list see literally any debate on genetic alterations literally ever). Just to put the scale of the genomic change another way, Dr Gillian Lockwood, a reproductive ethicist, gave the great quote that, “The biggest problem is that this has been described as three-parent IVF. In fact it is 2.001-parent IVF,”.
Regardless, MP’s were given a free vote on this as it was a ‘matter of conscience’ (a dangerous move trusting elected representatives to think for themselves) and the motion was passed 382 votes to 128- woo! However for me, this then raises the question about whether it is right to entrust 510 men and women with the decision over something as big as this, based upon their personal views of scientific ethics- some of them won’t even have any! There were several speakers who made very well-informed and reasonable assessments of the motion, but there were those that said the most stupid things, it made me want to go all Guy Fawkes.
For instance, in response to one honourable gentlemen’s explanation that mtDNA had absolutely nothing to do with personality, character or identity, a second honourable gentleman arose to reply asking “if they don’t affect character or identity, then how come when someone has mitochondrial disease they have learning difficulties, problems with brain development and autistic features?”. I truly hope that the other members of the commons saw what an idiotic question this was- if I was there I might have suggested stabbing him in the head with a pen, seeing how his character changed and then asking how his choice of biro or parker pen affected his identity.
I worry though that a lot of people identify with this view. I worry that any mention of ‘genetic transfer’, ‘character’, ‘inheritance’ or ‘engineering’ conjures up an instant curtain of ethics from which there is no emerging. I actually have no problem with the views expressed by the Catholic Church- they are nothing new and are largely the same as with IVF and the destruction of embryos. However, should we really be entrusting this vote to basically what is just a selection of random people who might have one personal viewpoint or another? Does it not make more sense to have a more central party message of ‘We are the Conservatives/Labour/Liberals and we believe in scientific progress. We believe that it would be unethical to abandon sufferers of this disease when there is the potential to help them and this is our standpoint on scientific ethics”, or of course vice versa.
I don’t quite understand why this has not happened and why both the public and scientific community have been denied a chance to really support one side or the other in a debate over what essentially boils down to science ethics- especially with an election coming soon. Although I want to see this put into practice as soon as it is safe and ready, I would have truly appreciated the opportunity to consider this as part of who I choose to vote for- it really would have had a significant bearing!
Maybe this is indicative of a larger problem in science communication, both to the wider public and to policy-makers. Perhaps we as a scientific community need to re-examine how we go about making people engage with change and with progress. Perhaps we need to show people how amazing science can be by striking a better balance between explaining the boring stuff and scaring them with Frankenstein-esque conceptions. I say all this because right now, if the politics of the three-parent baby debate teach me anything, in truth it’s either that the public don’t care about science ethics, or that the policy-makers don’t think that we do.