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Mitochondrial replacement debated in UK Parliament

8 September 2014
Appeared in BioNews 770

A group of backbench MPs, led by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, has sought to delay the laying before Parliament of regulations permitting the use of  mitochondrial replacement techniques (techniques to avoid the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child). A House of Commons debate on the matter concluded with Conservative health minister Jane Ellison reaffirming the government's intention to lay regulations before Parliament.

Bruce began the debate by arguing that 'to allow these procedures at present would be tantamount to experimentation'. Liberal Democrat MP and former biologist Dr Julian Huppert countered that 'when anything is tried on a human for the first time, we cannot be absolutely certain what will happen'.

Conservative MP David Willetts drew upon his recent experience as science minister, in which capacity he was involved in public consultations on mitochondrial replacement in 2012 and 2014. He said: 'We conducted a structured dialogue to consult members of the public on what they thought. When they understand that this is not to do with hereditary characteristics being affected by an arrogant intervention to create a designer baby, they support these interventions. If they support them, then so should we'.

Labour MP Frank Dobson, a veteran of debates about embryology and fertility, challenged the characterisation of mitochondrial replacement as 'three-parent IVF' by critics of the techniques: 'The baby we hope will be born will have a usual father and a usual mother - one mother and one father - and the idea that they will have three parents is ridiculous'. Others concurred, including Dr Huppert: 'We have heard arguments about multiple parents and the idea that this approach means that somehow there are three parents, but there are clearly two parents'.

Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP in whose Newcastle constituency research into mitochondrial replacement is taking place, was exasperated by calls for a delay: 'Never before has a technique had such rigorous investigation, and ethical and scientific analysis. It is therefore incredibly important that progress does not stall'. When Labour MP Robert Flello said 'I hope that the Government do not try to rush these things through', Dobson responded: 'Consultation on this started in 2003. If this is a rush, how would my honourable friend describe something that was slow?'.

Examples of constituents with families affected by mitochondrial disease were cited both in support of introducing regulations (for example by Labour MP Alex Cunningham, who spoke of a constituent whose child would not survive beyond early childhood) and in opposition to introducing regulations (by Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jr, who spoke of a parent in a similar situation who told him they 'would not change this for one moment'). Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh warned that permitting mitochondrial replacement would make the UK 'a rogue state in terms of bioethics', comments that were focused on in the Daily Telegraph's coverage.

The views of Labour peer Professor Lord Robert Winston were discussed by several MPs and indeed were cited in Bruce's original motion to delay regulations, which mentioned 'the recent comments of scientists including Lord Winston that, prior to the introduction of such techniques, more research ought to be undertaken'. Dr Huppert claimed that Lord Winston's views were in fact 'fundamentally different' to the way they were characterised in this motion. Ellison agreed: 'Mitochondrial donation is supported by both the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, and many clinicians and IVF experts, including, I am pleased to say, Professor Lord Winston'.

The debate concluded with Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston asking 'whether Professor Lord Winston was consulted before his name was added to the motion', to which the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons replied: 'If the noble gentleman was not consulted, I would consider that to be most discourteous'.

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Mitochondrial replacement
House of Commons |  1 September 2013
9 February 2015 - by Dr Rachel Montgomery 
Held at the Houses of Parliament, and organised by the Progress Educational Trust (the charity that publishes BioNews), this public debate was well attended. With all the chairs taken and many more people standing, people clearly felt it was important to discuss these issues...
2 February 2015 - by Rebecca Carr 
A group of researchers, including five Nobel laureates, has urged the UK's Parliament to legislate for mitochondrial donation...
2 February 2015 - by Dr Iain Brassington 
It seems to have happened very quickly: it was only in 2012 that the public consultation process about allowing mitochondrial donation to be used on humans was underway; and now – if you'll allow the pun – the first child to have benefitted from them could be conceivable in the next few months...
12 January 2015 - by Dr Rachel Montgomery 
Regulations to legalise and govern the use of mitochondrial donation techniques have been placed before the UK Parliament....
24 November 2014 - by Professor Peter Braude and Professor Robin Lovell-Badge 
A response to the open letter to the UK Parliament by Dr Paul Knoepfler...
Comment ( - 09/09/2014)
I am sorry, but I cannot find an acceptable reason to understand where people like Fiona Bruce MP are coming from in the Mitochondria Donation debate. I can only conclude that these people have never seen the desperation, devastation and total feeling of hopelessness that severe cases of Mitochondrial Disease brings to individuals and their families. I really despair of people who will stand by and watch others suffer, instead of offering help and assistance to those of us less fortunate than themselves. There is too much talking by people who know very little of the real effects of Mitochondria Disease. I would suggest they learn a little more before embarrassing themselves.Thank God they are in a minority, for you simply can't have a minority speaking for the majority, in a democracy.
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