MPs of all parties joined forces to open the way for mitochondrial donation but informed debate in the Commons, rather than unanimous agreement, makes for a stronger government and nation
In all the turmoil of critical reviews and party polemics that threaten to overwhelm the NHS, its staff and patients on a daily basis, let’s pause to be positive for a moment.
MPs of all parties joined forces to open the way for mitochondrial donation, which will allow groundbreaking British science to spare families the heartbreak of having irreparably damaged children.
It isn’t the “three parent family” scenario of inaccurate and harmful tabloid headline writing, nor does it open the floodgates (or is it the slippery slope?) to designer babies, or Frankenstein ones either.
‘I would have voted yes without hesitation’
The MPs voted by 382 to 128 (510 of all 650 on a Tuesday mid afternoon) simply to amend the rules that regulate the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
This will allow the authority’s panel of experts to sanction such donations (just 0.054 per cent of our individual DNA) case by case, to replace a mother’s defective mitochondrial “battery pack”, as junior health minister Jane Ellison described it.
The painstaking achievement of researchers at Newcastle University - they originally sought a cure for babies with any of 50 cruel mitochondrial diseases, but came to understand that prevention was the better goal - is way beyond my understanding. Yours too, probably.
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However, there are a few MPs (cries of “too few” where science is concerned) such as Cambridge’s Lib Dem enthusiast, Julian Huppert, who are on top of it. Also joining the ranks is Labour’s Liz McInnes, a biochemist who once worked at Royal Oldham Hospital where Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, was born in 1978.
Louise had a son via traditional conception in 2006 and the slippery slope predictions made by social conservatives and newspapers at the time have not come to pass. Incalculable distress has been replaced by simple joys of parenthood, as I have recently observed in my own family. I would have voted yes without hesitation.
‘The process is hardly being “rushed”, as some churches protest’
Yet I hesitate to join sweeping condemnation of the churches and other anti lobbies that helped fire up the 128 no votes. Most of their arguments got hammered in the brief 90 minute debate.
The process is hardly being “rushed”, as some churches protest.
Few med tech discoveries have been more reviewed, MPs were told. The two techniques available are not “genetic modification” (there seems to be a little confusion here) and the Chinese government did not outlaw the practice after mitochondrial triplets all died - they died because of the multiple pregnancy. And so on.
The no votes
I checked the CVs of some of those “awkward squad” MPs who spoke against: Labour’s Robert Flello, an ex-tax adviser, is “very religious”; Tory Fiona Bruce is a Scottish evangelical Christian; and Sir Edward Leigh is a prominent lay Catholic who usually speaks and votes against science that challenges the church’s ancient beliefs about conception.
But Steve Baker is an independent minded Tory software engineer who also turned against “casino banking” when working for Lehman Brothers - no bank bailouts, he boldly states.
‘Prevailing orthodoxy should be challenged; a unanimous Commons can be dangerous’
There are acknowledged risks in mitochondrial procedures - there always are - and it does look as though no UK clinical trials are envisaged in order to sidestep an EU directive banning them, cheeky though it is of Euro sceptics to invoke it. But far more countries and experts have been urging Britain to take this bold step than have been urging more caution.
It is right, however, that prevailing orthodoxy, social or scientific, should be challenged; a unanimous Commons can be dangerous.
Science can stumble. Wind farms versus fracking? Is “humane” animal slaughter really that humane? This week an expert review even challenged the 1983 low fat diet orthodoxy that persecutes butter, and it sounds too positive to be true.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian