A rant about bioethics

Anyone who ever read my last blog (at http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markchilds/) will know that I sometimes go a bit off-topic in order to let off a little steam about something. And once off-topic I run the risk of running into territory I know little about. But I read this … http://www.christian.org.uk/news/bioethics-expert-warns-against-gm-babies-plan/ and the full report here http://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/downloads/3-parents.pdf written by someone who is apparently an expert and it wound me up so much because it’s such a bad (or good) example of what happens when you let your need to come up with a particular position influence your opinion on something, I thought I’d comment.

The discussion is about mitochondrial transplantation in order to address mitochondrial diseases. They’re rare but pretty devastating. It involves taking out the mitochondria from an ovum and replacing it with donor mitochondria. The report does a good job of describing the procedure. Here’s the thing though, although mitochondria are passed from mother to child, they contribute nothing to the physical traits of the individual. That’s the DNA bit. The report seems to blur over this. Anyway, addressing the points one by one.

Biomedical risks: Yes it sounds like there are some, but the point about any procedure is that it contains them, and the researchers take those into account. Making this a particular case simply because it’s about genetics seems disingenuous.

Similarity to cloning: It’s similar inasmuch as you’re messing with ova, but it’s not replacing anything to do with the chromosomes … there could be some ethical problems with creating a human clone, but that’s something to be considered when that’s suggested, not at this point.

Similarity with the ‘male egg’ proposal. This just seems like an excuse to appeal to the homophobes in the audience. It’s not really similar at all.

Moral status of the embryo. Like any procedure to do with embryology, this produces spare embryos. This isn’t exceptional, so isn’t grounds for any additional concerns. Plus embryos aren’t actually defined as alive legally. Get over it.

Modifying the genetic inheritance: Again the sleight of hand with the genetic inheritance of the offspring. Mitochondrial DNA don’t influence appearance, behaviour, whatever, they process energy and growth in cells. That’s it. Sure they’re passed on, but it’s not like you’ll inherit any of the traits of the donor. Oh wait .. .that’s the next argument.

It’s eugenics: OK eugenics does have a bad name, it’s associated with nazis breeding supermen, and ethnic “cleansing” but this is about removing some really delibilitating diseases and isn’t about creating new communities of ubermensch. Again, this is an appeal to some pretty nasty reactionism.

Kinship issues: This is where the report goes from some dodgy appeals to knee-jerk reactionism to some seriously unhealthy worldviews explicitly stated: “a genuine risk exists that future children may be deeply confused and distressed in their understanding of who their parents really are. This may haveserious repercussions on the manner in which they define their identity and self-understanding.” Identity is my field. Identity is a complex and individually negotiated idea that each person works with and comes to terms with in their own way. The idea that someone may feel the person who donated their mitochondria is in any way a parent is remote, but then, people feel connections with the families of organ donors so it’s possible. But so what? Kinship varies, I know people with three parents, four, none. Adopted, fostered. Who have wards and just very close ties. I don’t want to get into knocking religion here (because it’s important to a lot of people who are important to me) but this is often where ethics advisers from a religious viewpoint get it wrong. Humanity, society, people are far more varied than they want to admit. We’re far more able to adjust to diversity than they want to accept, and they try to impose their own limited viewpoint on what is good and bad for people on the rest of us. I don’t mean religious people in general, I mean the ones who take it on themselves to advise the rest of us. It’s petty and small-minded.

I also should point out my own political ethical standpoint here (of course) and why maybe this is relevant to a blog called The Body Electric, but as I’ve said before, I’m a transhumanist. I see something like altering people or society and mixing things up and my first thought isn’t “ugh how scary, let’s stop it”,  it’s “wild, bring it on, let’s see what happens”. Luckily, I think my side is winning.

Finally we get to the part where I felt compelled to write this post: Sperm and eggs represent the whole person. The quote “When parents procreate in a normal way they also give of themselves in love wholly and unconditionally in the sense that it is not only a portion of the person that takes part in the procreation. It is the whole person that takes part, with his or her whole body and soul.” This is quasi-mystical bullshit. We are talking about addressing real people with real problems and this kind of comment is precisely why, if you’re making decisions about actual real things, you need to leave your fairy stories at the door. It would be very worrying if this report and particularly this final statement had any influence on the decisions being made, and it illustrates why something like The Christian Institute is the least competent organisation at addressing moral issues. In short people like Dr Calum MacKellar need to grow the hell up before opening their mouths in public.