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
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
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.