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GENETICS/ UK Churches speak out against bid to allow ‘three-parent’ embryos

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have issued statements urging MPs to vote against a new genetic technology that critics say is both unethical and unsafe. By AUSTEN IVEREIGH

From Catholic Voices From Catholic Voices

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have issued statements urging MPs next Tuesday to vote against allowing the UK to be the first country in the world to allow a new genetic technology that critics say is both unethical and unsafe.

The procedure, known as mitochondrial replacement therapy, has been developed by British scientists in Newcastle. It allows IVF clinics to replace an egg's defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy DNA from a female donor, to prevent children suffering debilitating conditions like muscular dystrophy. If it works, the result would be babies that are free of disease who are genetically related to three parents, including two mothers.

In our CV Comment briefing on the technology last year, ('Mitochondrial transfer: science that crosses lines for no good purpose' here), Megan Hodder noted:

The human germ line, the sequences of cells through which genetic information is passed on through generations, would be irrevocably altered. In introducing the technique, the UK will cross an internationally observed ethical and legal boundary, and in doing so gravely undermine the inherent dignity of the human person .... People living with mitochondrial disease deserve safe and effective medical treatment and an understanding of what causes their condition. But mitochondrial transfer will not provide this. It aims to mitigate human suffering by simply preventing certain humans from being born, using methods that will have unknown and unquantifiable consequences for future generations. Introducing the practice into the UK will be a great step backwards for medical ethics and human dignity.“

MPs will decide on Tuesday whether to change the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) of 2008 in order to legalise the procedure. The Government is backing the move.

Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics, said: “The Archbishops Council, which monitors this issue, does not feel that there has been sufficient scientific study or informed consultation into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondria transfer. Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time.”

Bishop John Sherrington, from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, says the move would have "profound implications".

"No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective. It seems extraordinary that a licence should be sought for a radical new technique affecting future generations without first conducting a clinical trial ....This is a very serious step which Parliament should not rush into taking."

The Church of England has no objection in principle to the destruction of embryos for medical purposes (Sir Tony Baldry, the voice of the Anglican Church in the Commons, noted that “the Church of England accepts that embryo research is permissible if it’s undertaken to alleviate human suffering"), but Bishop Sherrington's statement articulates the Catholic ethical objection to any procedure that involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process. "The human embryo is a new human life, and it should be respected and protected from the moment of conception," Bishop Sherrington said.