Monday, 2 February 2015

Three-Person Babies and the Church

This story caught my eye as I was preparing to teach earlier today. The science behind three-person babies is exciting and interesting, and holds the promise of banishing mitochondrial disease to the medical history books. The science, which I don't properly understand as I spent GCSE science tippexing natty doodles on my biology folder, involves removing mitochondria from an egg and replacing it with that from another donor before it is fertilised. Any babies born from this technique effectively have genetic material from three people.

You can understand why the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England are in a tiz about it.

Children are born from a union of a woman and a man, bound together in holy matrimony. Sex is a necessary evil to make babies that can only take place after a church has sanctified a relationship in the eyes of God. Just as same-sex relationships are abominations in traditional/literal readings of the Bible, and sex outside of marriage is also something Very Bad Indeed. Stands to reason that babies made from three parents, of being born not of one woman but two, falls foul of the holy screed.

And yet what's interesting are the grounds the CofE and CCE are choosing to oppose the draft legislation due before Parliament tomorrow. The BBC quotes Rev Brendan McCarthy, the CofE's adviser on medical ethics saying ,"We need to be absolutely clear that the techniques that will be used will be safe, and we need to be absolutely sure that they will work." Then comes a line about having the necessary ethical debates. In what looks like a bit of coordinated messaging, Bishop John Sherrington of the Catholic Church is quoted as saying "No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective ... There are also serious ethical objections to this procedure, which involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process."

This is very smart positioning by both churches on this debate. By leading with the scientific uncertainties around the process they make the inevitable theological follow up a bit more palatable. True enough, there are unknowns associated with the procedure - even though the genetic contribution from the "third parent" is a minuscule 0.2% of the resulting embryo's genetic make up. That said on the balance of that figure and a review of evidence so far, the balances of probability of abnormalities resulting from this procedure have to be vanishingly small.

What the churches have done is to seize upon the presence of a third genetic donor and - misleadingly position them as if they're an equal party to the process when they're not. They're relying on the wider public, including MPs due to debate the bill, who are interested/exercised by the ethical questions around fertility and genetic medicine to not be as equally well-informed by the actual science underpinning it. In other words they're spinning a story, quite adroitly, that appears to take up the science but uses that as a draw bridge for the theology to march across. That's fine, the churches are part of public life and should freely voice their opinions on public issues. It's just a shame they feel the need to bear false witness to do so.


Mark Charlesworth said...

Phil - you have at least one straw church here: 'John Paul II:
… proposes a sexual politics of the radical gift of self to man and woman to each other, profoundly different from mere use and consumption. From the very beginning of his ministry as a priest, he remarks in an important autobiographical passage, he had a special love for love. Deeply struck by the beauty of love between man and woman, he committed himself “to the service of ‘fair love’ because love is fair, it is beautiful. After all, young people are always searching for beauty in love.” Some of the most sensitive and illuminating passages of world literature on erotic love can be found in TOB. John Paul II’s argument has a compelling self-evidence because he allows love itself to show its beauty.'

Though to be fair JPIIs 'Theology of the Body' is not that well known in the Catholic Church let alone outside it. The original is one of the most intellectually demanding things I have ever read - JPII were a bright lad - so is a decent starter - pages 26-7 being particularly illustrative.

I also think that your understanding of risk assessment is pretty poor. E.g. small car components that are defective can lead to catastrophic failure or at least hugely expensive recalls - or CFCs or ... Put another way until recently scientists thought that 97% of DNA was 'Junk DNA' that did not 'encode' to deliver what they wanted; however, as time progresses the functions of this 97% is being better understood.

Which is not to say that the technique is bad just you have been a little sloppy in this piece so not up to your normal high standard - I shall resist the temptation to name a George Clinton song for comic effect.

Gary Elsby said...

Why do we need this process anyway?
The law already allows for donor eggs or donor sperm and so all arguments of designer babies are unnecessary.

The idea that a 'third' parent is needed is completely false to the scientific argument of ending mitochondrial malfunctions.

The argument here is exactly that of designer babies and it won't be too far along the line before a shopping list is put out.

Is this a case of two selfish people wanting a hand in making a baby between themselves but want Government legislation to give them guarantees that the church says they should not?

If a divorced man with children marries a 2nd time to a single woman who cannot have children, IVF is denied by the State on the grounds that one has children.
Now that is where the battleground should be.

Oh, and by the way, your 'former' left wing credentials are well known and so is 'their' respect for the church. There is a difference between belief in God and a belief in faith.
For many, there is no distinction.
It is sheer madness to dismiss the church as having no moral guidance when in fact, it shows it daily.

David Timoney said...

Baffling. That Jesus fella had two dads. What's the problem?

Anonymous said...

Without the church I wonder if there would be any debate around this issue at all, other than behind closed doors? I think there are serious ethical issues here that our society is not capable of evaluating. This isn’t just down to the Chruch but also Science, politics and culture.

“even though the genetic contribution from the "third parent" is a minuscule 0.2% of the resulting embryo's genetic make up.”

It may be small but it is the CRUCIAL element in the whole procedure, so in % terms small but in importance to the procedure, huge!

Gary Elsby said...

The decision to accept the third parent via Parliamentary approval proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Parliamentary decision to invade Iraq was the correct one after all.

Who are we to argue such divine right?