Saturday, 31 January 2015

Three parent baby law is 'irresponsible' says Church of England

Updated twice Sunday morning

That was the headline on a news report in the Telegraph by Sarah Knapton Science Editor of that newspaper: Three parent baby law is ‘irresponsible’ says Church of England ahead of vote.

Introducing laws to allow three parent babies would be ‘irresponsible’ the Church of England has said ahead of a crucial vote in the House of Commons next week.
Next Tuesday, MPs will vote to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 and legalise mitochondrial DNA transfer.
Until now the Anglican Church has withheld judgement on the issue, asking for more scientific evidence. But today it announced that it could not support the legislation…

A later report by her was headlined: Scientists accuse Church of ignorance over three parent babies.

Scientists have accused the church leaders of refusing to examine overwhelming evidence which shows that the creation of three parent babies is ethical and safe.
The Anglican and Catholic churches have both warned that it would irresponsible for MPs to pass new laws allowing the DNA of a ‘second mother’ to be used to repair genetic faults in an unborn child.
They have called for more scientific evidence to prove that the child will not inherit characteristics from the donor DNA.

But scientists have accused the church of ignoring reams of scientific evidence, and the outcome of a public consultation which showed widespread support for the new ground-breaking IVF treatment.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “Mitochondrial donation raises important ethical questions on which the Church of England can be expected to take a view.

“But it is remarkable that the Church has pronounced that there has been insufficient scientific study without first asking the scientists who lead this research, the families who stand to benefit, or the Wellcome Trust, which funds it, to explain the science to the Archbishop’s Council.
“The Church appears to have ignored the unprecedented independent scrutiny of scientific, ethical and public opinion about mitochondrial donation conducted over the last seven years.”

The report goes on to say that:

However the Bishop of Swindon, the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, said he was backing the legislation change.
“As a bishop who has been closely involved with consultations around the technology, ethics, permissibility and regulation of mitochondrial replacement, I was more than a little surprised to read that the Church of England regards changing the law to permit this as irresponsible,” he said.
“Having been a member of the Oversight Group convened by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for an extensive public consultation around this technique it is difficult to see how a more thorough job might have been done to engage with individuals and organisations, and to explore the ethical and scientific dimensions raised. “

The official Church of England statement: Statement from Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy on Mitochondrial replacement therapy.

This links to the Mission and Public Affairs Council submission from May 2014 on mitochondrial replacement to the Department of Health consultation on draft regulations to permit the use of new treatment techniques to prevent the transmission of a serious mitochondrial disease from mother to child.

And the strongly worded statement issued by the Wellcome Trust which was quoted in the second article in the Telegraph is available in full via this tweet.


Despite being quoted in the Telegraph earlier as shown above, the Bishop of Swindon is now apparently the joint author, with Brendan McCarthy, of an article on Comment is free entitled The Church of England and the three-parent controversy.

It does not take much to present the Church of England as divided, ignorant or out of touch. As the archbishop of Canterbury has observed, we do tend to conduct our arguments loudly and in front of the neighbours. But that does not mean we cannot agree and in the matter of the provocatively labelled “three parent embryos” there is greater consensus than recent headlines might suggest and a very different message from “the church says ‘no’.”

The Archbishops’ Council, through its division for mission and public affairs (MPA), has taken a keen interest in assisted reproductive technologies since their inception and sought to think through their implications for human identity and responsibility. In this task, the Church of England has sought to help wider society to reach wise judgments and hold tensions that can pull in different ethical directions. It has involved wrestling with dilemmas, quarrying our theological resources and discerning when a risk is not worth taking – and when it must be.

Mitochondrial replacement represents a novel way of enabling women at risk of passing on serious genetic disease to bear healthy children and prevent the passage of that abnormality to further generations. In 2012, the government asked the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority (HFEA) to seek the views of the public on two techniques for mitochondrial replacement. One of us was invited on to the oversight body for this consultation, a group that brought together a cross-section of stakeholders with hugely different attitudes and convictions…

There is also a further news report in the Observer today, by Robin McKie its Science Editor: Scientists strike back at Church of England over DNA transfer trials.

One of the most prominent supporters of a DNA technique designed to eradicate a range of inherited diseases has angrily condemned Church of England claims that MPs were being rushed into a vote to back the process. Consultation had been exemplary, he claimed.

Professor Douglas Turnbull, a Newcastle University scientist who works with women affected by mitochondrial disease, warned that this week’s parliamentary vote could be the UK’s last chance to pioneer the technique.

“I am glad this government has chosen to go ahead with a vote, but I am concerned about how that might play out,” he says. “A good number of MPs don’t appear to like the idea of mitochondrial transfer. If they vote it down then I think the technology could be lost for ever. We are due a new government and when it comes in, it will have other priorities. We may never get this chance again.”

And that would be a tragedy, he believes. There is no cure for mitochondrial disease, which is passed on to children from mothers who possess mutations in the DNA of the mitochondria in their bodies’ cells. The disease varies in its severity as it passes from generation to generation but can often be fatal.

But on Saturday, the church hit back at the criticism. The bishop of Swindon, Lee Rayfield, and Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, the church’s medical ethics adviser, said it retained concerns about the possible interactions between DNA in mitochondria and the main DNA in a patient’s cell nucleus. “We want to ensure that as a nation we get such a significant treatment and its regulation right…”

And the Observer has editorial comment:

…We should therefore be clear: the issue facing MPs is the alleviation of the plight of several thousand women in Britain whose mitochondrial DNA puts them at severe risk of giving birth to offspring who will sicken and die. Mitochondrial replacement is a highly specific technique that has been developed to counter that illness and no other. There is no link between its development and the creation of a future in which reckless scientists toy with the genetic profiles of men and women and it is grossly unfair to use conjecture in order to taint a medical technique that will be carefully controlled and licensed and which offers so much to afflicted families.

It is a point that was raised in a letter to the Times last week by a group of the country’s most distinguished scientists and ethicists, including Baroness Warnock and Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston. They made it clear that the question facing parliamentarians on Tuesday is not whether they would want to use the technique themselves but whether there are good grounds to prevent affected families from doing so.

The answer to this point is unequivocal. There is no reasonable ethical justification in stopping families who are affected by the blight of this disease being given access to mitochondrial replacement. MPs therefore have a clear moral duty when they vote on Tuesday. They should approve the measure.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Saturday, 31 January 2015 at 6:33pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

I entirely agree with the Bishop of Swindon.Here is yet another example of the Church of England showing its utter inability to understand the pain and the longing of ordinary people in society.

The so called 'statement by the Church of England' does not speak for me!

Posted by: Jean Mayland (Revd) on Saturday, 31 January 2015 at 7:52pm GMT

Oh CofE, if you can't say something sensible (or compassionate!), can you PLEASE Just Say Nothing At All???

Posted by: JCF on Saturday, 31 January 2015 at 8:00pm GMT

I beg Brendan's pardon - I see that we know who the spokesperson is. But I think he and "the Church of England" are wrong and the bishop is right. This is a procedure with risks, certainly, but I think it is worth taking for the sake of those who have suffered so much with the impact of mitochondrial disease in their lives. It is not a cavalier move towards designer babies.

Posted by: Jeremy Pemberton on Saturday, 31 January 2015 at 8:06pm GMT

The Church of England continues to make itself a laughingstock.

Posted by: Jeremy on Sunday, 1 February 2015 at 12:26am GMT

The "Comment is Free" article seems to be an attempt by MPA to cover its back against accusations of obscurantism. The only problem is that once the first MPA announcement had been made, the cat was out of the media bag, and the "Comment is Free" article won't get much attention. Also the blog isn't the easiest piece of writing to understand, is it.

It seems almost inevitable that the legislation will go through. The perceived twisting and turning on the part of the C of E will continue to stoke the view that it is irrelevant at best (a position already held by 60% of the population according to Linda Woodhead's research) or that it is stuffy and out of touch.

How much better it would have been if MPA had taken the trouble to talk to Bishop Lee before it made its original statement. An advantage of establishment is that people like Bishop Lee get put on committees like HEFA. But if the Church doesn't make use of their expertise, what's the point?

Woodhead's research has also demonstrated that the church leadership is doubly out of touch with the general population and with Anglicans in particular, in that it is much more "conservative" on social and ethical issues, and much more "welfarist" on economics. It's fine to be out of touch if you are right, but ....

Finally, the term "three parent baby" is perhaps misleading. Given the ratio of mDNA to DNA, perhaps 2.00001 parent wouuld be more accurate, even if you take the reductionist view that DNA defines parenthood.

Posted by: Turbulent priest on Sunday, 1 February 2015 at 2:49pm GMT

"Turbulent priest" suggests that the church leadership is "out of touch" because it disagrees with the rank and file. Utter nonsense - to disagree with people, even with a majority of people, does not mean you are out of touch with them.

The Church of England is (rightly) not a democracy and its leadership are (rightly) not elected in any conventional sense. They are not representative in the way that MPs are representative. They have no particular obligation to speak the opinions of those attending Church of England churches.

Posted by: Sam on Sunday, 1 February 2015 at 5:05pm GMT

I find it hard to believe that Dr McCarthy knows better than the Wellcome Trust and the HFEA on this.

Posted by: Flora Alexander on Sunday, 1 February 2015 at 5:57pm GMT

The term "three parents" is both irresponsible, unscientific and false.

Posted by: Laurie on Sunday, 1 February 2015 at 6:10pm GMT

I am presently in hospital being treated for an acute exacerbation of my idiopathic bronchiectasis; most of my fellow patients on this ward have bronchiectasis caused by the genetic disorder of cystic fibrosis.

Over the years there have been many, many attempts to assist my fellow patients by gene therapy research; the fact that they are not that much further forward seems to me to call for more research, not less.

My daughter, who is a doctor, tells me that she sees patients with mitochondrial diseases with equally, and sometimes much worse, symptoms for which there are no effective treatments.

It seems a pity that I can recognise from my hospital bed the urgent need for research to assist the alleviation of suffering of others when the Church really can't seem to grasp the basic principles of science, much less engage with compassion and empathy.

And, for the avoidance of all possible doubt, there is absolutely no possibility that the research could benefit me in any way; apart, that is, in recognising and affirming that no man is an island. John Donne put it much better...

Posted by: Stevie Gamble on Monday, 2 February 2015 at 2:19am GMT

It is difficult to see from the official CofE submission to the consultation on this issue, whether these are genuine ethical concerns on a scientific basis or rather an unscientific stance of some more conservative members of the Mission and Public Affairs Council seeking the impossible "proof of a negative"

"Question 9: Do you have comments on any other aspect of the draft regulations?
While supportive, in principle, of both MST and PNT, we believe that further research is necessary into the relationship between mtDNA and nDNA. Concerns have been raised, for example, with regard to potential mismatches between the mitochondrial and nuclear genome,with varying responses noted from scientists.Concern has also been voiced with regard to heteroplasmy arising from donor mtDNA and the difficulties associated with eradicating this possibility"

Posted by: Paul Richardson on Monday, 2 February 2015 at 9:05am GMT

The really surprising thing is that anybody still thinks that human beings have only two parents.

Posted by: AndrewT on Monday, 2 February 2015 at 10:44am GMT

"Scientists have accused the church leaders of refusing to examine overwhelming evidence which shows that the creation of three parent babies is ethical and safe." There seems to be some on-going confusion over the distinction between science and ethics. We may heed the scientists advice about matters of safety but ethics is another matter altogether.

The point "But scientists have accused the church of ignoring reams of scientific evidence, and the outcome of a public consultation which showed widespread support for the new ground-breaking IVF treatment." seems to suggest that numbers somehow determine the ethicality of something. Wrong again.

The science can be exact, the support overwhelming but the ethics entirely wrong.

Posted by: Andrew F. Pierce on Monday, 2 February 2015 at 3:17pm GMT

Steve Gamble's comment here, is most telling.

He speaks for many patients.

Posted by: Laurie on Monday, 2 February 2015 at 7:07pm GMT

How sad to see another 'own goal' against the Church of England, albeit one scored by a clergyman of the Church of Ireland! It gives the impression that none of us are able to think properly about the issues faced by people in our own society.Fortunately our politicians have been able to give a moral lead, when the Church cannot. Then we wonder why it is that fewer people want to attend church !

Posted by: The Revd Don Stevenson on Tuesday, 3 February 2015 at 11:41pm GMT
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