I look at my daughter and welcome this decision
Published by The Daily Mail (4th February, 2015)
Given the immense medical and moral significance of the issue, it was curious that MPs were given only 90 minutes to debate a law which would allow the creation of babies from two mothers and one father.
For as public health minister Jane Ellison told the Commons, this is a bold step to take, involving world-beating science. But it is also one with deep global implications.
Britain has become the first country in the world to endorse this extraordinary genetic innovation, developed largely at Newcastle University, which involves mitochondrial replacement – healthy DNA from one woman being inserted into embryos from another.
This is particularly controversial since it means that genetic material will be carried by the newborn child and can be passed down future generations. Not surprisingly, it has provoked fears that hidden side-effects could emerge in future years.
But I strongly believe it was the right decision to take after an unusually exhaustive consultative process that does credit to our country, with three separate independent reviews over seven years.
Crucially, the process does not impinge on the very complex nuclear DNA which contains the 23,000 genes that define the characteristics of a child.
And despite alarmist opposition over ‘three-parent children’, we already have more than two parents contributing biologically to the birth of children, with the use of egg donation and surrogacy.
Indeed, it could be argued that there are ‘four’ genetic parents involved when anyone is given an organ transplant – another modern medical intervention that highlights how science is constantly improving and extending the lives of human beings.
Back in the 1970s, critics also opposed the introduction of in-vitro fertilisation, with similar emotive talk of doctors ‘playing God’ and potentially lethal consequences. But by the time the first ‘test-tube baby’ Louise Brown turned 21, such techniques had become routine, with 300,000 more people born by the process around the world.
As the parent of a child born in the early 1990s with complex disabilities due to a rare genetic disorder, I can understand the pain of families forced to watch children suffer neurological conditions that could now be avoided.
I still suffer agonies seeing my daughter scream as she suffers epileptic seizures, tears forming in her eyes as she thrashes around. Although she is 21 and adorable, it cuts to my core knowing she will never walk, talk or feed herself.
Some parents have seen a succession of children die in infancy or childhood due to faulty mitochondria – which can cause similar cases of complex epilepsy, as well as devastating conditions such as muscular dystrophy and even catastrophic organ failure.
Only one in 6,500 children develop these more serious disorders. Now, if the change in regulation is approved by the House of Lords, such children will gain the chance to live a full life.
Yet while I welcome this advance, one critical MP yesterday asked where do we stop? And he was right to pose this question, for there are moral questions that even this mild form of genetic engineering raises.
Some smug scientists now talk in excitable terms of eliminating all disabilities and, rather sinisterly, of ‘enhancing evolution’. This has been described as ‘back-door eugenics’ – the wiping out of certain types of people through medical advances.
This would certainly be dangerous in a society that still excludes far too many people with disabilities from mainstream life and which aborts a rising number of children on grounds of an often comparatively minor disorder such as Down’s syndrome.
So even as I praise yesterday’s sensible decision, we still have to deal with the implications of this brave new world. However amazing these medical advances are, they also raise profound issues going to the heart of human existence.