18 september 2012

New fertility technology raises serious ethical issues


manipulation of eggs to add mitrochondrial DNA from the egg of a female donor creates a three parent embryo, and ethical questions

Currently only in the research stage, a new in-vtro fertility (IVF) technology is raising some difficult ethical questions. The basic concept  behind the technology is to eliminate inherited health problems which are passed down the maternal line. This is done by removing faulty mitochondrial DNA in the fertilization process of a mother’s egg, and replacing it with material from a female donor so a baby does not inherit genetic health problems from the mother.  These problems can inclue inherited heart and other organ problems, brain disorders, blindness, and so on. This technology however creates a 3-parent embryo.

Proponents say this could lead to the elimination of previously incurable health conditions.  Opponents say it opens the door to “designer” babies and would reverberate through all subsequent generations, artificially altering the human gene pool. They also say in the wrong hands, it could lead to other, more sinister ends.

Margaret Somerville is the Founding Director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. She spoke to RCI’s Marc Montgomery
The issue comes to the fore as Britain launched a public consultation this week.  They’re asking whether such “3-parent” in vitro fertilization should be available to parents who have decided against having children in order to avoid passing on genetic diseases.

The consultation is being organized by the Human Fertilization and Ebyrology Authority (HFEA), the independent regulator for IVF treatment and research

(photos from CBC video report)

The Chair of the HFEA, Lisa Jardine said, “This is uncharted territory. If this is allowed...it has consequences in perpetuity."
The issue is being closely watched around the world, especially in the USA where scientists are also working on DNA swapping.

In Canada, this type of DNA manipulation is illegal because it is considered a from of germline alteration which can be passed on.  It is therefore banned under Canada’s current Human Reproduction Act.

In June however, a British medical ethics panel said such 3-person fertility treatments for mitochondrial diseases could proceed as long as research shows they are safe and effective.

Meanwhile, questions being raised include such things as the rights of the donor and whether mitochondrial DNA donation is the same as egg or sperm donation, or more like blood or tissue donation.  Other question raised include whether a child should be told, and how their identity might be affected.

The British HFEA Head Lisa Jardine has also said, “Medical science of this kind, especially when it involves human reproduction, has the potential to "immediately alter the nature of society to all eternity.”  She also added there is a need to balance the desire to help families have healthy children and the affect such technology might have both on the children themselves, and on wider society

Internationally reknowned medical ethicist Margaret Somerville of McGill University in Montreal, and founder of the Centre for Medicine Ethics and Law, has said that such questions must be thoroughly discussed before technology proceeds, and that in some cases, especially genetic manipulation of human genes, should not be done at all.

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