International opposition grows to UK’s three-parent embryos

The British government is about to embark on the precedent-shattering move of allowing genome engineering.
Jenny Leigh | Oct 12 2013 | comment  

Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was in plenary session last week in Strasbourg, have adopted a “written declaration” severely criticising the British government’s plans to allow the genetic engineering of human embryos with three genetic parents.

If such a measure were approved by Parliament, it would be the first time that a government had given a green light to the deliberate modification of the human genome and the creation of children with three parents.

This is a very welcome intervention on the subject as it comes following enthusiastic assent to germline procedures from the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It is in the light of the enthusiasm of these bodies that the UK Government is currently considering allowing the creation of three-parent embryos to go ahead.

Yet the support the written declaration has received should give the Government pause for thought.

Thirty-four parliamentarians from 13 of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, an international body charged with upholding human rights and ethical standards and responsible for the running of the European Court of Human Rights, have signed in opposition to “The Creation of Embryos with Genetic Material from More than Two Progenitor Persons”.

The declaration cites various international texts -- including the UNESCO Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. All of these prohibit practices that would introduce inheritable changes into the human gene line. The Declaration concludes that:

“the modification of human eggs or of early embryos for procreation using heritable (germ-line) interventions through the use of genetic material external to the entirety of the two parents’ hereditary information (their genomes) is a eugenic practice”. [And as such] “the creation of children with genetic material from more than two progenitor persons, as is being proposed by the United Kingdom Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is incompatible with human dignity and international law.”

A briefing for members of the Parliamentary Assembly to spotlight the Declaration took place last Wednesday. It was organised by CARE (Christian Action Research and Education, a charity providing resources and helping to bring Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy and practical caring initiatives) and CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a public interest group focusing on ethical dilemmas surrounding human reproduction), and co-chaired by Jim Dobbin MP and Terence Flanagan TD.

At the briefing, Dr Calum Mackellar, a member of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, spoke on the dangers of the proposed procedures, highlighting in particular the implications of altering the parent-child relationship in this way.

Josephine Quintavalle, Director of CORE, drew attention to the way in which the proposed procedures further instrumentalise women’s bodies, worsening a problem already present in many assisted reproductive techniques.

In a pre-recorded interview with Prof. Assuntina Morresi, from Italy's National Bioethics Committee, Prof. Stuart Newman, of New York Medical College, debunked the myth of genetic determinism that has led to such enthusiasm for this form of genetic intervention, explaining the medical and ethical dangers posed by these mitochondrial procedures.

The declaration follows increasingly voluble expressions of concerns from the international bioethical and scientific community over the drafting of regulations for the HFEA’s proposals. Various groups of US opponents to germline engineering have been hugely encouraged by this initiative, particularly as this very issue will be discussed by the US Food and Drug Agency later this month.

In July Marcy Darnovsky, of the progressive (and pro-choice) bioethics think tank, the Center for Genetics and Society, in California, recently wrote a stinging critique of the British move for Nature, the world’s leading science journal. She concluded:

“The question raised by these proposals is whether a risky technique, which would at best benefit a small number of women, justifies shredding a global agreement with profound significance for the human future. We need a moratorium on procedures based on human germline modification while that question is widely and fairly considered.”

More concerned parliamentarians will be adding their names to the Declaration in the coming months. The range of Council of Europe member states currently represented includes the UK, Italy, Poland, Spain, Croatia, and Hungary, amongst others. It is imperative that international consensus is established that these are eugenic procedures, and as such cross a line that must not be breached.

To permit germline intervention is to alter the nature of what it is to be human, compromising the very notion of human dignity and value. To this end CORE will continue to encourage as many delegates as possible to add their names to an initiative which clearly unites a very broad spectrum of concerned citizens of the world.

Jenny Leigh writes from London. She is a researcher at Comment on Reproductive Ethics. 

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