Does the Church have a right to speak out about medical procedures?

A proposed new technique to replace an embryo's damaged mitochondrial DNA with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor has had a high profile in the news this week, as has the opposition from church leaders to this procedure. The purpose of this procedure is to prevent children inheriting mitochondrial diseases, which can have a devistating effect. "Why," many would ask, "would the Church object to something that will save lives and prevent suffering?" Others would simply ask what right the Church has to speak out at all about the development of new medical procedures.

 

I believe that the Church does have a right to speak out on such a subject, as would any other organisation with an interest (the Church has an interest because it represents a great many people in our society, including many who are affected by disease or disability). But is it right in what it is saying? And is the medical and scientific community willing to engage seriously with the Church's arguments, and with the Church itself? It is to be hoped that the answer to that question is 'yes'. The Church brings a particular ethical perspective to the debate (as, indeed, do other religions). The Christian religion believes that human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore every human being is of value, and worthy of dignity and respect. The Church also believes that God desires the flourishing of every member of creation. So, yes, the Church should be in favour of those things which can relieve or prevent suffering. But the Church also has to take into account in its thinking the idea that the world is not ours, but God's; we are not free to do with creation anything that we wish. And, as human history has shown many times, human actions often have unintended and undesireable consequences. Drawing society's attention to the possibility of these potential consequences is one valuable contribution that the Church can make to a discussion such as this one.

 

According to news reports, the Church of England's advisor on medical ethics, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, has said that the C of E's main concerns are around the safety and efficacy of the technique. It is, without doubt, right to be concerned that medical procedures are as safe as possible, and that they will do what they are meant to do. But until such a technique is trialled in humans, there is no way to answer questions of safety and efficacy with certainty. So the question then becomes are the doctors involved as sure as they can be that safety concerns have been addressed. Naturally, they also have a responsibility to ensure that those willing to take part in any such trail do so with informed consent, and aware that the procedure carries some risk - as is the case with any drug or medical procedure. The same principles apply to efficacy - are doctors as sure as they can be before trialling the procedure in humans that it is likely to be effective, and have those taking part in trials been made aware that there is a chance that it may not work? It is important to note that, even if the technique is shown in trials to be safe and effective, it is impossible to guarantee that it will be 100% safe and effective for everyone who might benefit from it. This is true for any drug or medical procedure, as every individual is different, and different individuals may respond differently to a drug or intervention.

 

News stories have also suggested that some objections, particularly those from the Roman Catholic Church, are based on the creation and destruction of an embryo to provide the raw material (healthy mitochondrial DNA) for the proceudre. While this objection may apply to one proposed method for obtaining donor material, if I have understood the proposed techniques correctly, it may also be possible to harvest healthy mitochondrial DNA from an unfertilised egg. As a woman has many more eggs than she will use to produce children, it is hard to see how such an objection could be raised if the method used involves an unfertilised egg.

 

Sadly, some of the objections that are being voiced may be due to sensational reporting, rather than the scientific facts of the proposed procedure, namely that the result of the procedure will be a child with 'three parents', or that this is the beginning of 'designer babies'. While mitochondrial are essential to the functioning of our cells, the material that makes us 'us' is our nucleic DNA, the combined DNA of mother and father. That will not contain material from a third donor, so the talk of three-parent babies is misleading. By the same token, if one were to try to create 'designer' babies, this would involve altering nucleic DNA to achieve a specific outcome - something that would be extremely difficult to do. And while many understand and support intervention to prevent severe disease, to do so to alter cosmetic characteristics, such as hair or eye colour, is unacceptable to most, so is very unlikely to be permitted.

 

Altering DNA, even for a good reason, is a serious business, and should not be undertaken lightly. It is right that robust public debate should be had before any such procedure is allowed, and the Church should be a part of that discussion. But for all of us, it is important to understand the facts and the science before we speak out, so that we can offer an opinion that will be taken seriously. If those who speak for the Church believe that they do have the facts straight, and have a reasonable understanding of the science, then they have a duty to draw our attention to the things that concern them, those things that have the potential to cause, rather than relieve, suffering, and which once done it may not be possible to undo.


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