The UK seems now set to betray one of the few fundamental ethical principles the world still seemed to agree upon, i.e. the prohibition to tinker with a human person’s genetic identity.
Following a vote in the House of Lords yesterday, which approved the bill by 280 votes to 48, fertility clinics will be allowed to carry out a procedure called “mitochondrial donation”.
Babies created through this IVF technique would have genetic material from three biological parents – a mother, father and a female donor. This is done to prevent the mother from passing on mitochondrial disease, which is genetically transmitted over the female line. The procedure involves the use of a donated egg cell from another woman, into which the nucleus of an egg cell taken from the mother will be transferred. The modified egg cell will then be fertilized in vitro with the father’s sperm.
The procedure is highly invasive and risk-laden – and it is not clear which effects the mitochondrial transfer will have on the children so created, or the generation coming after them. This is really a historical first with unforeseeable consequences.
With this new legislation, the UK is betraying a world-wide consensus that the human genome should not be tinkered with. Indeed, the fact that human beings are created by reproduction technicians using “material” selected from various persons is the first and decisive step towards the creation of “designer babies”. As is always the case with such ethically controversial innovations, the reproduction industry uses certain “hardship cases” involving rare genetic diseases that might be avoided in order to further its agenda. But it is very clear that if the procedure is today allowed for couples with a risk of having children with mitochondrial disease, it will soon be asked whether it could not also be used to avoid the transmission of other genetic risks. In the end, it will be available to anyone who asks for it.
Nobody in his right mind can believe that the reproductive industry has invested years of research solely to “help” people with a very rare medical condition. It is very obvious that today’s debate on mitochondrial disease is merely a door-opener to get people accustomed to the idea of tinkering with the human genome. Once this is accepted, all remaining legal restrictions will be removed one by one. Assertions made in yesterday’s debate that “there is nothing slippery about this slope” are ridiculous – it is hardly believable that those making them are really so naïve as to believe in what they are saying.
A world where some people are allowed to tinker with the genetic identity of others is a world where the respect for human dignity is completely cancelled out. Our ideas of human dignity and of equality imply that the genetic identity of us all is, to some extent, the result of blind chance rather than of human planning and tinkering – and that, despite all differences, we all enjoy equal dignity. This understanding of human dignity risks being totally flouted by a law allowing some persons to have other persons “made” according to their gusto.
The acceptance of this new technology is similar to, if not worse than, accepting slavery. While a slave can still try to run away from his oppressors, a “designer baby” can never escape from the genetic identity that others have imposed on it.
With this new law, the UK puts itself at the absolute lower end of the list of countries respecting human dignity – at a same level with North Korea, if not below. It will now be an urgent task for the international community, in particular the Council of Europe and the EU, to call the country back to order and require it to ensure a basic respect for decency.