U.K. House of Commons OKs genetic manipulation, including ‘three-parent’ in vitro fertilization


Catholic News Service

The British House of Commons voted to legalize a genetic process to fight the transmission of mitochondrial diseases, such as muscular dystrophy.

If the legislation is approved in the House of Lords, Britain would become the first country to allow scientists to alter the human germ line in trying to defeat incurable diseases.

A culture vessel is injected with culture liquid at a Leipzig, Germany, center for assisted reproductive technology in this July 2011. The House of Commons has approved an IVF method that will use genetic material from three "parents." (CNS/EPA file)
A culture vessel is injected with culture liquid at a Leipzig, Germany, center for assisted reproductive technology in this July 2011. The House of Commons has approved an IVF method that will use genetic material from three “parents.” (CNS/EPA file)

The two procedures covered by the regulations are highly controversial because they are not permitted in any other country in the world, with international scientific opinion divided over their effectiveness.

Catholic leaders and organizations expressed concern about the Feb. 3 vote on regulations governing the practice, saying that the process involves the destruction of human embryos.

After a 90-minute debate in the House of Commons, members voted 328-128 to approve the unamendable legislation.

Afterward, Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster issued a statement on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

“Whilst the church recognizes the suffering that mitochondrial diseases bring and hopes that alternative methods of treatment can be found, it remains opposed on principle to these procedures where the destruction of human embryos is part of the process,” he said.

“This is about a human life with potential, arising from a father and a mother, being used as disposable material,” he added. “The human embryo is a new human life with potential; it should be respected and protected from the moment of conception and not used as disposable material.”

Mitochondria are the biological power packs that give energy to nearly every cell of the body. Genetic defects can leave the cells starved of energy, causing muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most extreme cases. It is estimated that, each year, defective mitochondrial defects affect one in every 6,500 babies in the United Kingdom.

Two procedures were covered by the regulations.

The maternal spindle transfer technique involves the extraction of the genetic material from a mother’s egg, which is then inserted into a donor egg in which the maternal spindle has been removed and discarded. The reconstituted egg then is fertilized by the father’s sperm before implantation in the mother. The procedure is known as “three-parent IVF.”

The second technique, pronuclear transfer, involves up to four parents. Potential parents would go through the procedure for in vitro fertilization with the embryo from the parents seeking a child to be combined with parts of a donor embryo. The process requires that both embryos be destroyed while the mother’s embryo is effectively cloned and repackaged before the cells begin to multiply and grow into a baby.

During the House of Commons debate Jane Ellison, public health minister, told politicians they had nothing to fear.

“This is a bold step for Parliament to take, but it is a considered an informed step,” she said. “This is world-leading science within a highly respected regulatory regime and, for the many families affected, this is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.”

After the vote, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley, Scotland, said the proposed techniques fail on ethical grounds.

“They destroy human life, since in order to construct a disease-free embryo, two healthy ones will have to be destroyed. The technique is not a treatment, it does not cure anyone or anything, rather it seeks to remove anyone affected by certain conditions from the human gene pool. Destroying those who have a particular disease and presenting it as a cure or as progress is utterly disingenuous and completely unethical,” he said.

The practice “distorts the natural process of fertility,” Bishop Keenan said.

“It is surprising that a society which increasingly favors and supports natural and environmentally friendly products and services should countenance the genetic modification of human beings. How can we object when scientists genetically modify plants, but not when they do the same with people?” he asked.

Helen Watt of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, an Oxford-based institute serving the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland, called the vote’s outcome “a disaster.”

“We can only hope that the House of Lords will take a more skeptical approach,” she said. “No one will be treated by these techniques, which transfer nuclear DNA out of and into eggs or embryos in the course of producing genetically modified babies.

“Children born and their descendants may be harmed in ways we are currently unable to predict,” she said. “This is human experimentation, to say nothing of the embryos destroyed — in the case of one procedure, two embryos destroyed every time that procedure is performed.”

During the House of Commons debate, Fiona Bruce, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, told members they were being asked to authorize experiments on children, adding that “the implications of this simply cannot be predicted.”

“But one thing is for sure, once this alteration has taken place, as someone has said, once the genie is out of the bottle, once these procedures that we’re asked to authorize today go ahead, there will be no going back for society,” Bruce said.

The proposed technologies are prohibited by the European Union, opposed by the United Nations, and have been questioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has stated that the “full spectrum of risks … has yet to be identified.”

Among those concerned is Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, who told Catholic News Service Feb. 3 that he was “very disappointed” by the vote.

“With all the science that has been done on this it is still being portrayed as mitochondrial manipulation,” he said. “It is not, it is nuclear manipulation.”

Newman said he had no doubt the procedures amounted to the genetic modification of human beings.

“It’s basically the creation of a being from the bits and pieces of cells from different people,” he said. “Scientifically, it you try to put together an organism from fragments of cells, it’s going to mostly not work. Frequently it will look normal, but there will be things wrong with it. That has been shown experimentally.”

He said it was dangerous because it disrupted the “evolutionary compatibility” between the nucleus of a cell and the mitochondria of the cell.

“It is going to lead to children with conditions which, in some cases, will probably be worse than the conditions they are trying to avoid,” he said.