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Government moves to relax IVF rules

02 January 2015


IVF techniques that would for the first time permit the transfer of genetically modified embryos into the womb have been approved by the Government, despite public unease,.

Regulations to allow mitochondrial donation were laid before the House of Commons on 17 December by the Health Minister, Jane Ellison. The method has been developed to prevent women who suffer from a form of mitochondrial disease, caused by faults in the DNA of mitochondria, from passing it on to their children.

IVF is used to fertilise a mother's egg, containing "unhealthy" mitochondria, with the father's sperm. The nucleus of the fertilised egg is then collected and transplanted into a donor egg that contains healthy mitochondria, but with its own nucleus removed. More than 99 per cent of the child's genes would come from the mother and father, and less than one per cent would come from the donor, prompting some to use the term "three-parent baby".

The Government argues that it has carried out a "comprehensive and transparent process . . . to review the public acceptability of mitochondrial donation, and the ongoing evidence of safety and efficacy".

In October, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said that the "public dialogue exercise" it had conducted indicated that there was "general support" for permitting the technique. An expert scientific panel, convened to review the safety of the technique, concluded that there was no evidence to show that it was unsafe.

The response of the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council to the consultation recommended caution: "While supportive, in principle, of both maternal spindle transfer and pro-nuclear transfer, we are uncertain that enough is, as yet, known about the roles that mitochondria play. . .

"If it can be demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that mitochondria play no part in the transmission of hereditary characteristics, a change in the law is, in our opinion, permissible. If mitochondria do play a role greater than that currently understood, further consultation would be necessary before any change in the law ought to be considered."

The submission also notes that research into the techniques, and the techniques themselves, will require the destruction of embryos, causing "ethical problems for some people".

The chief executive of CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), Nola Leach, said last month that the methods raised "profound ethical and identity questions", and "huge, unanswered safety concerns". A poll commissioned from ComRes in September suggested that support for a change in the law had fallen from 35 per cent in February, to 18 per cent.

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