Britain is to be the first country to allow babies to be created using DNA from three people in a bid to eradicate a very debilitating and deadly genetic illness. So are we blazing a pioneering trail or simply treading where others, quite rightly, fear to go?
It is, as the Bishop of Swindon, Dr Lee Rayfield said, a massive step. But the gains for the individuals involved are huge. Defective mitochondria condemn children to brain damage, muscle wasting, heart failure, blindness and death. Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, lost all of her seven children to mitochondrial disease. Just by using the 0.001 per cent of the second woman’s DNA to replace the damaged mitochondria means the genetic impairment is removed, not just for that child created using IVF but for all the following generations. Also the mitochondria have their own DNA which has no impact on appearance or height or any other genetic feature.
So the case for allowing it is strong. The case for refusing the treatments to go ahead concerns principled stances against using embryos for experimentation and very pragmatic fears over the safety of the procedure. But on the theory side, the doubts are mostly two-pronged.
The objections are firstly that when we tamper with the genome or genetic line we know not with what we tamper, or more accurately we have no certainty exactly what the consequences of that tampering will be. It is true our knowledge of genetics is not complete or comprehensive, but it is the very nature of science that it is on the boundary of the unknown. And using science to improve health and life experience has been a key part of the journey to raising life expectancies and improving mortality for countless millions.
The second main objection is that it is the thin end of the wedge when it comes to designer babies. The theory runs that if you allow genetic modification for health reasons then it opens the door for people to allow genetic modification for reasons we would deem frivolous, like eye colour or hair colour or height. The true Frankenstein nightmare is the extension of this to either genetically create people who are superior to others, or that genetic control becomes so pervasive that characteristics like a genetic disposition to violence – or compassion – are “filtered out” of people.
Both of these arguments can largely be ameliorated by proper regulation, both of experiments and of future procedures. So what happened with MPs getting a free vote on this one particular procedure, which scientific reviews by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have said is “not unsafe”, is absolutely the way we should proceed.
Decisions need to be taken on what is possible now, and what should rule that is the very great good this procedure could provide for the lives of many individuals and their families for generations to come.
Barbarity that knows no bounds
Revulsion and anger in equal measure are the responses to the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh by Islamic State. The sheer inhumanity of its chosen method of killing its captive beggars belief. This is a crime no civilised person, no civilised state and no civilised nation could possibly condone. To cover a man held captive in a cage with inflammable liquid and then set fire to him is simply barbarous.
But, hard though it is to believe, the motivation for this cruel act makes it even blacker, even more heartless, even more cruel and calculating. This was not a mindless act of violence. This was a very carefully thought-out plan and the horrific nature of the killing was carefully orchestrated to have the maximum effect.
For very obvious reasons Islamic State is under attack from a coalition of nations, including the UK, who are trying to stop it expanding its murderous medieval empire and the slaughter of innocents that brings with it. Jordan, an Arab nation, is a symbolically significant part of that coalition. Opinion about that position is divided within the country. There are many, including Fl Lt Kaseasbeh’s father, who believe that it is not Jordan’s war and Jordan should play no part in it. Islamic State has allowed that protest to build, even although we know now that Fl Lt Kaseasbeh was killed over a month ago, and has sought the most dramatic way possible to convince the people of Jordan not to get involved. They have even threatened others who are taking part.
This brutal act should double the resolve of all right-thinking people to curb this menace and the coalition should not be allowed to waver.