16 March 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 794
This interview started badly for Professor Robert Winston. Within the first four minutes he had branded the concerns of opponents to mitochondrial donation 'trivial', and almost immediately after denied that he had done so. However, though Professor Winston occasionally returned to this condescending register, the points he made following his early slip-up were far more convincing.
Much of the conversation focused on points and phrases that, to those who have been following the debate over the past few years, have become familiar. Changing cell's batteries, slippery slopes and steps in the dark were all present.
On the whole Professor Winston performed well. When challenged on the morality of the procedure, for example, he flipped the question on its head, saying that it is 'our moral obligation to see if we can alleviate suffering'. Again, on the question of the genetic intervention being passed down the generations, Winston used this tactic: 'If you can cure the disease in future generations, isn't that a good thing? Or would you rather see that disease reoccurring?'
The programme was broadcast soon after the House of Lords' vote on mitochondrial donation (see BioNews 792). Host Zeinab Badawi regularly acted as the opposition to Professor Winston's pro position. And, although Badawi stated that she did not hold the opinions she challenged Winston with, she did regularly interrupt him. At times this seemed to inhibit his ability to fully express and explain his position, and was somewhat frustrating to hear.
Despite this I was largely impressed by his responses. He defended his comments that taking mitochondrial transfer was 'a step in the dark' with the retort that all new medical procedures have a level of uncertainty about their effects. Given current knowledge, though, the risk is worth taking.
He highlighted the likely small number of preliminary patients who will be monitored, and that the procedure will only be permitted on a case-by-case basis, with informed consent after careful selection.
The interview then took an unexpected left turn when Badawi questioned Professor Winston on his attitude towards assisted dying. He is against a change in the law, citing fears of pressurising the vulnerable and elderly into ending their lives. However he did not vote against the Assisted Dying Bill, but abstained, for which he provides thought provoking reasoning. An orthodox Jew, Professor Winston feels that his faith dictates his position on the law and as such he should not impose his personal religious opinion on a democratic process.
He feels this approach should extend to mitochondrial transfer: 'If you are a Catholic, you should consider not having treatment, but why would you impose these beliefs on others in a pluralistic society?'
Still, most of the interview covered well-trodden ground, and is unlikely to have made any listener switch sides. I also found that occasionally, Professor Winston attempted dismiss dissenting views by simply asserting his position as an expert, an ill-judged move. For example, there is certainly a debate to be had on the extent to which genetics influence behaviour, yet he closed it down boldly stating that nature is far more important than nurture. That was that.
Happily, more often Professor Winston presented rational and calm arguments, which showed the careful deliberative process leading to legalisation in a good light, as well as reflecting the cautious manner in which the first mitochondrial donation treatments will proceed. Perhaps soon we can leave the 'slippery slopes' behind.