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Crossing another ethical Rubicon

12 July 2013

New techniques in IVF and DNA should not be muddled, says Paul Vallely

Connor Levy is just two months old, but there is something about his fine head of hair and happy, smiling face that disarms argument. He is the picture of a healthy baby. Only the slogan printed on his blue Babygro gives pause for reflection. "Made with love - and science," it says. Who would be so mean-spirited as to take against him?

Master Levy is the first baby born using a revolutionary new DNA test to screen the chromosomes of an embryo before it is implanted during an IVF treatment. The technique is called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), and scientists this week predicted that it would increase IVF pregnancy rates by 50 per cent, and reduce miscarriages by a similar margin. Many IVF pregnancies miscarry, most of them because the implanted embryo turns out to have chromosomal abnormalities, which NGS will reduce significantly.

Some in the Church have been less than enthusiastic. They have talked about science racing ahead of ethics yet again, as they have with another recent breakthrough, mitochondrial replacement. This second technique aims to prevent the transmission of maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA disorders by taking mitochondria cells from a woman other than the mother. "Three-parent babies" are now in prospect.

There is, however, an important difference between these two techniques. The first is about preventing undesirable outcomes. The second is about creating desirable ones. An ethical Rubicon is crossed here.

Those who take the absolutist position associated with the Roman Catholic Church maintain that both techniques are unacceptable. NGS involves selecting from up to a dozen created embryos, which necessitates the disposal of the rejected embryos, or their consignment to an unlimited time in frozen suspension. Those who insist that from conception the embryo is a human person, with inviolable rights, leave no room for argument here. What is involved is not the elimination of a disease, but the elimination of a person.

Yet that is not the position of the majority in the UK. The mere fact that most people think something does not, of course, make it right; but it is also important not to allow arguments about the two techniques to become muddled. Selecting the best from what is available is very different from setting out to create a person from whom imperfections have been removed. Altering genes to tackle disease opens the door to manipulation in other ways to produce genetically superior embryos.

Should parents be allowed, for example, to screen out deafness? Disability-rights campaigners are vehement that it cannot be morally justifiable to destroy an embryo simply because of this. There is more to their fears than abortion absolutism: this is creeping eugenics. Such attitudes devalue the deaf in the eyes of the rest of us. A society without imperfection would be an impoverished society; for it reflects a diminished view of what it is to be human.

The problems arise long before the classic arguments about "designer babies" and parents' selecting for intelligence or gender. It is not easy to see how - in a consumer society, which increasingly sees parenthood as a right rather than a privilege - a line can be drawn firmly between the permissible and the undesirable to those who are rich and powerful enough to make such demands.

In any case, there are other issues that might be more fruitfully debated. NGS illuminates the statistic that the chances of chromosomal abnormalities increase with the mother's age. Women in their 20s have only a one-in-ten risk, but this rises to more than seven in ten for women in their 40s. Perhaps the NHS should be refusing state-funded IVF for older women. But that is a subject for another day.

Paul Vallely's book, Pope Francis, is being published by Bloomsbury at the end of the month.

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