House of Commons Votes For GM Babies – Will the Lords ask for safety, legal and ethical issues to be addressed?
Earlier this week the House of Commons voted to permit the creation of what some MPs described as genetically modified babies. The full debate and voting list is in Hansard at:
Note that among those who voted against the proposals, on what was a free vote, were the two most senior law officers in the Government, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General. Around half the House of Commons voted against or abstained: 128 against and 350 for.
The House of Commons was given 90 minutes to consider this awesome question – a decision which will alter the genetic make-up of future generations. Just 90 minutes for GM babies – 90 hours for fox hunting. Nye Bevan once said that “politics is the religion of priorities”. What does this say about our priorities?
On February 24th the Mitochondria Regulations will now be considered in the House of Lords.
The former Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party Chairman, Lord Deben (John Gummer), with all-party support, has laid a Motion before the Lords urging Peers to consider more carefully, and with much more detailed parliamentary scrutiny, the safety and legal implications of this decision. He has called on the public to write to Members of the House of Lords asking them to vote for the Motion, which reads as follows:
Lord Deben to move that this House declines to approve the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 laid before the House on 17 December 2014 and calls on Her Majesty’s Government not to lay new draft regulations until a joint committee of both Houses has been established and has reported on (1) the safety of the procedures permitted by the draft regulations, (2) the compliance of the draft regulations with European Union and domestic law, and (3) the key definitions used in the draft regulations.
The Regulations contain two distinct methods of altering germ line genetic identity – spindle transfer and pro-nuclear transfer.
They both raise questions of legality in international law and both raise safety concerns.
The second (but not the former) also involves the destruction of at least two and, in some cases as many as ten, human embryos to create the new modified human embryo.
During the Commons debate, the Minister, Jane Ellison, was keen to combat the slippery slope argument with the following rejoinder:
“I looked back at the debates in the House on IVF all those years ago, when some were worried about a slippery slope, and all the safeguards are still in place more than two decades later.”
Those who used the slippery slope argument back in 1990 did so on the grounds that allowing for the destruction of human embryos in IVF was likely to lead to the commodification of the human embryo, and further abuses to human life.
Two decades later, around 2 million embryos have been experimented on, destroyed, or otherwise discarded. The 1990 legislation paved the way for the dignity of the human embryo to be defiled with the addition of gametes from other species. And this week, Parliament allowed for the genetic modification of human embryos. If that isn’t evidence of having fallen down a slippery slope, I don’t know what is.
We have been here before. In 2007, prior to the legalisation of human/animal hybrids, disabled people were told that without that provision, those of us who opposed it, were condemning them to years of suffering. It was a lie. The disabled people who were brought in wheelchairs to lobby Parliament in favour of animal human hybrids were shamelessly manipulated and exploited, cruelly raising false hopes. Funding agencies subsequently refused to finance the procedure which Parliament was stampeded into authorising. It was bad science and bad ethics.
The Warnock Report, which led to the 1990 legislation and paved the way for animal-human embryos, said that “the human embryo should be treated with respect”. Baroness Warnock subsequently said it was hard to see how you were showing respect as you flushed the human embryos down the drain. Welcome to Dystopia.
As we now consider crossing another red line note that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has admitted “pro nuclear transfer involves genetically modifying a human embryo”. The Department of Health says it doesn’t but there is no consensus on the science, the definitions or the law. What is clear is that using unamendable Regulations, hurried through Parliament we cross yet another red line
The procedure raises profound questions.
No other country in the world has sanctioned it. Most are signed up to Protocols banning it. Other Parliamentarians are askance that Britain is sullying its reputation by doing it. Even the People’s Republic of China – after using pro-nuclear transfer, and after the death of all three babies conceived, has banned it (the reasons for the three foetal deaths are unknown because the data has been withheld). Other countries which have banned it include the United States. So has the Council of Europe.
It would be callous not to recognise the deep desire of women whose children may be affected by mitochondrial diseases to bear healthy children of their own. However the issues of safety and legality still remain outstanding whatever view one takes of the ethics of one or both of these procedures.
How can it be right to push ahead with a procedure which, one world authority, Professor Stuart Newman, has described as “inherently unsafe?”. Another warned that “the UK is one the verge of an historic mistake.” The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, who supports the proposals, told Peers this week: “no-one will guarantee that it is safe”;
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Expert Panel, in three reports, recommended a number of preclinical experiments. Yet the majority of these have not yet been conducted, written up, or peer-reviewed. This will surely leave the NHS open to the charge of negligence if babies are subsequently born with disabilities. Last month the NHS was required to pay compensation of £10 million to a girl of seven because of disabilities which occurred though their negligence when she was born. If there are unforeseen outcomes in any of these pregnancies won’t the failure to carry out proper clinical trials lead to similar litigation in the courts?
One scientist, who supports these procedures, rightly asks the question “how many abnormalities need to be seen before the programme is stopped.” That’s a central question – yet the Government’s advisers dismiss it saying it is “purely rhetorical.”
In a back-to-front process, and in the absence of pre-clinical trials and results, Parliament is being asked to give the last word on public safety to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. But they are a regulator, not a legislator. It is Parliament’s duty to protect the public.
I was particularly struck by the representations which have been made to British Parliamentarians by European Parliamentarians. 43 of them (including Greens, Socialists, Christian Democrats and Conservatives), wrote to the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt warning him of “the enormous safety consequences for the children created and their offspring.” They warned that the UK may be in breach of the European Union Clinical Trials Directive – which says that no procedure “used in clinical practice” may be authorised “without any investigation or trials first having taken place.”
The Attorney general in Northern Ireland concurs with that view, as does Lord Brennan QC who sent the Government Counsel’s Opinion that they are acting illegally. He cited Article 9(6) of the Directive (2001/20/EC) which states that “No gene therapy trials may be carried out which result in modifications to the subject’s germ line genetic identity.”
Much of the debate revolves around the key definitions which are used in the Regulations. The debate in the Commons found no settled view on whether the technology constitutes ‘genetic modification’; whether ‘mitochondrial donation’ is an accurate way to describe the processes involved; whether the procedures can be said to involve ‘three parents’ (and the implications for children born there from who will be denied knowledge of their true biological identity); and whether or not manipulating mitochondrial DNA will affect the characteristics of the children who result from these techniques. Some say it’s just like a blood-transfusion: but no blood transfusion brings a new human being into the world.
The one thing which is clear though this fog is that key questions of safety, legality, definitions and ethics cannot be treated in this cavalier way. Lord Deben is right to ask that a Joint committee of both Houses now goes away and considers these questions properly, separating and examining the two techniques involved, and allow Parliament to take a considered and informed view before further undermining its reputation and turning Britain into a rogue State.
If you wish to write to Peers you can do so by email http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/contact-a-lord/lord/ or write to the House of Lords, London SW1 A OAA.