Morality, science and a lifeline to those in need

Ever since Aldous Huxley portrayed a future where human embryos are made to order, there has been an irrational fear of so-called "designer babies". Whatever the merits or demerits of the decision by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to relax its rules on the selection of embryos for the sake of their seriously sick siblings, it does not bring Huxley's nightmare vision any nearer.

This decision is not about designing babies, nor it is about selecting physical or psychological attributes such as hair colour or intelligence. It is about helping children who would otherwise die from a genetic disorder. The HFEA must therefore be applauded for its policy change.

It is, without doubt, morally justifiable to consider a tissue transplant from one child who is below the age of consent to a sibling who would otherwise die provided that the risks to the donor child are low. What then should be the difference in using modern reproductive technology to select an embryo that is both free of an inherited condition and has the right tissue match to help a sick brother or sister? This is not about creating and using embryos for spare parts, as some have mischievously argued. It is about the pragmatic and intelligent use of modern science to help children in dire need.

The ethical issues surrounding embryos created by in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) are complex, and the unique nature of the process requires a unique set of safeguards, which was why the HFEA was set up in 1991. A central concern of the authority is to protect the welfare of IVF babies. It has now effectively extended this concern to considering the welfare of a sibling, albeit on a case-by-case basis.

Nobody expects that there will be thousands or indeed hundreds of cases where this form of embryo selection is carried out - the diseases in question are thankfully very rare. But for those who can benefit from this approach, yesterday's decision will offer a lifeline to much-loved children.

This is not about using children as a means to an end; it about extending our compassion to those who need it most.

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