Are European politicians right to oppose 3-person IVF?

Philippa Brice

7 October 2013

A group of European politicians have signed a declaration against plans to permit mitochondrial replacement (MR), also known as three-person or three-parent IVF.

The technique allows parents affected by mutations in their mitochondrial DNA have a genetic child without passing on the defects by using a donor egg including very small amounts of healthy mitochondrial DNA. The UK has a robust but relatively permissive regulatory regime for cloning and IVF, and is moving towards being the first country in the world to allow use of the technique (see previous news), though safety concerns have recently been raised (see previous news).

Now ethical and legal issues have come to the fore as 34 members of the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation, have signed a declaration opposing the technique as a eugenic practice. It states: ‘The undersigned members of the Parliamentary Assembly affirm that the creation of children with genetic material from more than two progenitor persons, as is being proposed by the United Kingdom Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is incompatible with human dignity and international law’. UK MP Jim Dobbin proposed the declaration, with seven additional UK politicians among the signatories. The basis of the legal objection is the germ-line modification element; children born from MR would be able to pass on to their own children DNA from all three contributing ‘parents’.

The IVF technique is scientifically highly ingenious and potentially transformative for prospective parents at risk of having children affected by severe mitochondrial disease. Such individuals could of course receive IVF using donor eggs in order to give birth to healthy children; this would alleviate ethical and safety concerns, but the birth mother would not then have made any genetic contribution to the children.

It is interesting to note that, whilst scientific experts have roundly condemned the declaration, they all emphasise that the technique would allow parents to have healthy children rather than addressing issues of law or ethics as raised by the declaration. For example, Genetics Alliance UK Director Alastair Kent said: “It seems a shame that people who are not directly affected by these conditions are making comments which are castigating the wishes of parents who live with the prospect of having a child who will die”.

This is a telling point, underlining the tragic impact of mitochondrial disease. However, anyone may reasonably hold an ethical or indeed legal view on an issue without necessarily having been directly affected by it; or indeed without malice towards those who hold opposing views or stand to benefit. Perhaps a more relevant (if less emotionally weighty) point is that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) held a lengthy public consultation on mitochondrial replacement, outlining potential risks and benefits, and found that on the whole it was considered a socially acceptable development in the UK.

Following on from this, as well as an HFEA view that the technique was likely to be reasonably safe, the Government is attempting to modify current legislation in order to make it legal. The signatories to the new declaration obviously believe that there are grounds to challenge this development via international human rights legislation, and a challenge of this nature may well be forthcoming that could at least delay introduction.