Medical innovations which appear to take us into unfamiliar ethical territory evoke predictable responses. This week’s announcement about a new IVF procedure was accordingly couched in apologetic terms, in anticipation of an outcry. This is because the procedure uses DNA from three people in order to prevent the passing on of heritable diseases. The announcement nervously assured us that the procedure would be used only to prevent very rare conditions, that only a few babies would be born each year as a result, and that it would be strictly controlled by legislation.
The announcement should instead have been made with a great fanfare. It represents a fine scientific advance and a victory in the battle against some devastating diseases. And, in doing so, it gives hope of parenthood to those who otherwise could not risk having children born only to suffer.
It is an indictment of our intellectual culture that so much airtime should be given to the stock responses of moral conservatives and religious lobbies who protest at the idea of “three-parent babies”, “meddling with nature” and “playing God”, and to issue dire warnings about unintended consequences and slippery slopes. For although it is, of course, right that there should be thoughtful and responsible regulation of any medical technology, these sorts of arguments are based on nothing but muddle and ignorance.
Firstly, all medicine “meddles with nature”, given that cancer and pneumonia are as natural as elm trees and roses, and combating them means interfering in their natural courses. Secondly, there is no more strangeness in the idea of having three genetic parents than having four genetic grandparents, or any number of genetic siblings and other relatives. To think otherwise is to be stuck in a conventional view that is blind to the fact that families are social entities, and society has hardly ever restricted itself to the fact, that in unreconstructed biological form, pregnancy usually requires the co-operation of at least two contributors.
The point about our genetic connections is a particularly silly one. Everyone on the planet is related to everyone else. All anatomically modern humans are descended from one female, Mitochondrial Eve. She lived 190,000 years ago, but in fact our inter-relatedness is vastly more intimate than that. If you do the arithmetic on the number of your forebears – four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and so on – you find that as recently as 600 years ago, there were far fewer people on Earth than would be needed for you to have no common ancestors with me. So the idea of genetic mixing and relatedness is an old story, and no more problematic in the case of a three-parent child than a four-grandparent child or one who knows she is related to the world population as a whole.
The moralists say that it will be confusing for a child to have three parents. It is not noticeably confusing for children to have only parent, or perhaps four of them when a full complement of natural and step-parents is added up. This is confusing not for the children, but for the moralists themselves.
One point that has not so far emerged in the debate is that if regulation of the technique allows, gay couples could both be biological parents of their children. At present, only one member of a gay couple can be so. This would be a great advance in its own right.
The debate about IVF in general has long been muddied by the same argument as the moralists produce in this case. Yet the very people who make the difficult, long, expensive and sometimes heartbreaking effort to have a child by this means are exactly those who are best suited to being parents. They are the ones who are serious and dedicated in their desire to have children, and should be encouraged and helped.
The three-DNA technique is tantamount to a miracle for those whose choice is otherwise either childlessness or the risk – and perhaps the certainty – that to be a parent must come at the expense of a difficult and, in too many cases, awful life for their offspring. Since hardly anyone would wish to make that bargain, the choice itself is no choice: carrying a heritable disease is a ban on parenthood. Until, that is, now.
Those who oppose this new technique are not being kind or considerate, therefore. In the way typical of all moralisers, they seek to force others to live according to their own scruples and timidities. No one asks them to be involved in this breakthrough: by what right do they seek to interfere in the chances of health and happiness for others?
Medical advances rest on the growth of scientific understanding; it is science that offers hope and now, quite often, salvation for the real ills of the world. Let’s be wise about how we use science, but let’s not be reactionary.