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Is mitochondrial donation 'genetic engineering'?

24 March 2014
By Professor Janna Thompson
Department of Philosophy, La Trobe University, Australia
Appeared in BioNews 747

A debate last week in the House of Commons aired ethical issues raised by mitochondrial transfer – the radical IVF procedure that could be available in the UK by next year (reported in BioNews 746).

Though the procedure, commonly described as 'three person IVF', has been approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), it faces objections from those who think that it violates ethical standards.

The obvious point in favour of mitochondrial transfer is that it can prevent debilitating and incurable diseases. But is the procedure safe? One of the main concerns of its critics is that tampering with DNA could have unforeseen bad effects on a child's future health and on the health of future generations.

However, parliamentarians and other critics are not merely worried about possible harms to health. Some believe that the technique is ethically problematic because of its effect on individual identity. They think that changing an egg's, or embryo's, DNA amounts to manufacturing a new being. It tampers with the very basis of what makes an individual who he or she is.

What gives an individual an identity is a contentious philosophical issue. But the small amount of DNA added by a third person's mitochondria will not affect those things that are central to identity: personality and appearance. Children born as the result of the technique are not likely to feel insecure about who they really are.

Does it matter if mitochondrial transfer destroys someone who would have been born and creates another person? Those who think that an embryo has a right to life are opponents of any procedure that involves its destruction. But changing the genetic constitution of a mother's egg (as one form of transfer requires) is no violation of anyone's rights. There is no one in the anteroom of existence whose chance to be born has been frustrated.

For some critics the ethical problem with mitochondrial transfer is not identity but human tampering with the basis of human life.

What makes human interference bad? One answer – voiced by Jacob Rees-Mogg in Parliament - is that it sends the wrong kind of message. It implies that only perfect human beings are wanted.

Genetic engineering has sinister implications for many people because of its association with eugenics policies adopted by some states in the first part of the 20th century. These had the aim of creating a more productive and healthy population by eliminating from the gene pool those regarded as unfit.

But the practice of mitochondrial transfer and the motivation behind it have nothing to do with eugenics as it was once practiced. It is not a state program designed to 'improve' the population. It allows consenting parents to have a child who will not suffer from a serious disability.

Individuals born as the result of this technique will be no less unique, no less free, and no less able to live their own lives than others. The reasons we have for respecting human individuals will apply equally to them.

The existence of the technique is no reason for disrespecting individuals who have a disability. A person should not be identified with their disability.

The purpose of mitochondrial transfer is not to produce perfect humans: it is a way of combating debilitating ailments. But the worry of many critics of genetic engineering is that this is the first step toward eugenics. There are good ethical reasons for objecting to the use of genetic engineering to make 'perfect babies'. It could lead to a division between genetic 'haves' and 'have-nots'. It could undermine parent and child relations.

But there is a crucial difference between use of genetic engineering to remove a serious disability and its use to make people more intelligent or better looking. The distinction between disability and normal variation is not always easy to make. But it is a difference worth hanging onto.

The acceptance of a technique to prevent disease does not force us to accept techniques to make 'designer babies'. But the possibility that future developments could create serious problems for society and personal life is a good reason for holding debates about proposed techniques - now and in the future.

8 September 2014 - by Dr Ted Morrow 
The regulatory path to clinical trials of mitochondrial replacement therapy was recently debated in the House of Commons. While scientists are still unsure how genes and genomes cause disease and impact on our physical appearance and personality, there are clearly misconceptions about mitochondrial genetics repeated during the debate that are not supported by current scientific evidence...
26 August 2014 - by Dr Anna Smajdor 
Underlying many controversies in reproductive technology is an assumption that there is a 'harm threshold' – a point at which a child would suffer so much that it would have been harmed by coming into existence. This idea has an intuitive appeal, but the questions it raises are very difficult to answer...
21 July 2014 - by Professor Vardit Ravitsky, Dr John Appleby, Professor Stephen Wilkinson, Dr Anthony Wrigley and Dr Annelien Bredenoord 
Ethical dimensions of the emerging technology of mitochondrial replacement were the focus of a symposium that took place on 25 June at the 12th World Congress of Bioethics in Mexico City....
17 March 2014 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
The Conservative MP for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has said that mitochondrial donation will produce 'genetically modified children' with 'three parents', and was 'effectively cloning'...
3 March 2014 - by Patricia Cassidy 
The UK Department of Health has published draft guidelines for the use of new techniques to prevent mothers passing on serious mitochondrial diseases to their children. The guidelines will be the subject of a three-month consultation...
3 March 2014 - by Chee Hoe Low 
The USA's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to allow human clinical trials of mitochondrial replacement, an IVF technique that uses gametes from three people...
24 February 2014 - by Dr Roger Sturmey 
The description of mitochondrial transfer as 'three-person IVF' may conjure up some unnerving perceptions of the consequences, and may be met in the public arena with discomfort, but it's worth considering the fundamental aspects of this approach...
Yes - it certainly is germline genetic engineering ( - 24/03/2014)
As pointed out by many prestigious scientists such as Prof Stuart Newman,
Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College,
and why they so strongly oppose it.
Comment ( - 25/03/2014)
No one is disrespecting people with disabilities,far from it! To suggest this is the case, smacks of desperation from those objecting to this miraculous medical advancement. How anyone could happily stand by and allow a new life to be born disabled, when a procedure is available, that could have prevented it, is beyond belief and not what is expected from civilised society. Especially when the disabilities in question are so severe and life threatening, with no after birth treatment or cure! We always have these doom mongers, whenever any new medical advancements are discovered. Years later we wonder what all the fuss was about. No one is asking these objectors to use this new technique, should their family be so unfortunate as to need help, they can say NO. May I suggest, that if they had closer contact with people and families suffering with these serious diseases, they might have a more sympathetic understanding of the sheer desperation of these unfortunate people.
Comment ( - 28/03/2014)
This is a therapeutic transplant of an organelle rather than an organ. Only mystic irrationalists seriously suggest that a new heart or new kidney changes a person's identity. The output of healthy mitochondria - an effective energy 'economy' for a person's cells - allows the indivdual to express their identity and potential. It's the illness without the transplant which prevents the person developing and which adversely affects their life. Sometime the medical model of disability is the correct perspective that is when an easy and effective cure is immediately available. Nobody thinks heart trouble is a result of society's prejudice against cardiac patients or that angina is an essential expression of persons identity.
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