Updated Tuesday morning
As we noted earlier, there appeared to be a discrepancy between what the Telegraph had reported the Bishop of Swindon as saying on Friday and the subsequent article that appeared in the Comment is free article on Saturday, listing him as joint author with Brendan McCarthy. Here is the full text of the emails sent to the Telegraph.
Church of England statement on Thursday
The Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics, said: “The Church of England accepts in certain circumstances that embryo research is permissible as long as it is under taken to alleviate human suffering and embryos are treated with respect. The Archbishops Council, which monitors this issue, does not feel that there has been sufficient scientific study or informed consultation into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondria transfer.
“Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time.
“The Church of England has responded to the latest Government consultation and awaits further consultation on this issue in due course.”
full text of Bishop of Swindon statement to Telegraph on Friday
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. That is not my understanding of our position and does not do justice to the response given on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council to the public consultation conducted by the HFEA. That response was largely affirming but properly raised concerns about safety, possible interactions between the mitochondria and nucleus which were not well understood, and not opening the door to modifications of the nuclear DNA.
Having been a member of the Oversight Group convened by the 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.
What is perhaps not well understood – and this may lie behind the caution expressed in your report and headline – is that changing the law to permit mitochondrial replacement will not mean it becomes immediately available in a clinic as soon as the legislation is passed. If Parliament does authorise this technique an Expert Group will continue to monitor and seek evidence around safety and efficacy; only when there is sufficient reassurance around these matters will applications for licencing be admitted.
Church of England later statement following Wellcome Trust intervention:
The Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics, said: “The Church of England is aware of the complex ethical issues raised over the possibility of mitochondrial replacement therapy and the extensive scientific research that has been carried out in this field over the years.
“Changing the human germline represents an ethical watershed; it is right to be cautious, requiring a comprehensive debate and degree of consensus with regard to the ethics, safety and efficacy of these techniques before any change to the current provisions are made.
“We accept in certain circumstances that embryo research is permissible as long as it is undertaken to alleviate human suffering and embryos are treated with respect. We have great sympathy for families affected by mitochondrial disease and are not opposed in principle to mitochondrial replacement.
“A wide number of questions remain to be answered before it would be wise to proceed. For example, the two proposed techniques involved in MRT are not ethically identical – little debate has been given to this. The Church has participated in the debate at every stage, making submissions to consultations run by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the HFEA and the Department of Health as well as participating in relevant seminars and workshops.
“Our view, however, remains that we believe that the law should not be changed until there has been further scientific study and informed debate into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondrial replacement therapy.”
And yet both of them apparently signed this article.
The BBC website has an interview with Brendan McCarthy which you can view here.
The Guardian has an editorial comment (unsurprisingly in favour of the legislative proposal) which includes the following:
The two churches are urging MPs to vote against treatments that will give some parents their only chance of a healthy baby. The Catholics charge a process to create a healthy, wanted embryo from two fertilised eggs – one unwanted, one unsafe – with destroying both. The Church of England, or at least the apparatchik who seems to be speaking for it, is demanding “absolute certainty” that the new procedures will work, a test that would bar any advance in medicine ever. Despite regulations, drafted after years of research and debate, that require separate scrutiny and approval for every individual seeking treatment, both churches shriek about a dash into the unknown.
Organised religion is doing such a bad job of explaining what it doesn’t like about “mitochondrial donation” that it’s tempting to conclude that there is no ethical issue at all, merely the same sort of superstition that once fuelled moral panics about heart transplants. But in calmer mood, the churches could have produced three potentially more serious objections – none of which, however, are persuasive in the end…