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