This interview started badly for Professor Robert Winston.
Within the first four minutes he had branded the concerns of
opponents to mitochondrial donation 'trivial', and almost immediately after
denied that he had done so. However, though Professor Winston occasionally returned
to this condescending register, the points he made following his early slip-up were
far more convincing.
Much of the conversation focused on points and phrases that,
to those who have been following the debate over the past few years, have
become familiar. Changing cell's batteries, slippery slopes and steps in the
dark were all present.
On the whole Professor Winston performed well. When
challenged on the morality of the procedure, for example, he flipped the
question on its head, saying that it is 'our moral obligation to see if we can
alleviate suffering'. Again, on the question of the genetic intervention being
passed down the generations, Winston used this tactic: 'If you can cure the
disease in future generations, isn't that a good thing? Or would you rather see
that disease reoccurring?'
The programme was broadcast soon after the House of Lords'
vote on mitochondrial donation (see BioNews 792). Host
Zeinab Badawi regularly acted as the opposition to Professor Winston's pro
position. And, although Badawi stated that she did not hold the opinions she
challenged Winston with, she did regularly interrupt him. At times this seemed
to inhibit his ability to fully express and explain his position, and was
somewhat frustrating to hear.
Despite this I was largely impressed by his responses. He
defended his comments that taking mitochondrial transfer was 'a step in the
dark' with the retort that all new medical procedures have a level of
uncertainty about their effects. Given current knowledge, though, the risk is
He highlighted the likely small number of preliminary patients
who will be monitored, and that the procedure will only be permitted on a
case-by-case basis, with informed consent after careful selection.
The interview then took an unexpected left turn when Badawi
questioned Professor Winston on his attitude towards assisted dying. He is
against a change in the law, citing fears of pressurising the vulnerable and
elderly into ending their lives. However he did not vote against the Assisted Dying Bill, but abstained, for which he provides thought provoking reasoning. An
orthodox Jew, Professor Winston feels that his faith dictates his position on
the law and as such he should not impose his personal religious opinion on a
He feels this approach should extend to mitochondrial
transfer: 'If you are a Catholic, you should consider not having treatment, but
why would you impose these beliefs on others in a pluralistic society?'
Still, most of the interview covered well-trodden ground,
and is unlikely to have made any listener switch sides. I also found that occasionally,
Professor Winston attempted dismiss dissenting views by simply asserting his
position as an expert, an ill-judged move. For example, there is certainly a
debate to be had on the extent to which genetics
influence behaviour, yet he closed it down boldly stating that nature is
far more important than nurture. That was that.
Happily, more often Professor Winston presented rational
and calm arguments, which showed the careful deliberative process leading to
legalisation in a good light, as well as reflecting the cautious manner in
which the first mitochondrial donation treatments will proceed. Perhaps soon we
can leave the 'slippery slopes' behind.