In the three-parent embryo debate, why is it assumed that scientists are always neutral and benign?

Why do people assume that white-coated scientists are simply neutral – or benign - in the work they do, asks Francis Phillips (PA)

When I sat down to listen to the BBC’s five o’clock news programme on the radio yesterday, for a fleeting minute, as the broadcaster introduced the item about the Commons vote on “three-parent babies”, I indulged in the fantasy that some MP, with great debating gifts as well intellectual power and moral intensity, had stood up during the debate and actually persuaded the House by the force of their argument not to go ahead. Then the news came: a vote in favour by a majority of 254 votes. As I said, I was indulging in fantasy rather than reality.

I heard the news with the usual sinking feeling that follows from Commons debates on subjects like this. When was the last time that a Commons debate concerning the subject of the very start of life, the egg and embryonic stage, concluded “No, we won’t do this – because it is ethically wrong?” Most people, like me, do not have the scientific training to discuss in detail what is at stake, so we rely on what the experts tell us. However, as Christians, we recognise that where the dignity of human life is concerned, even at its earliest stages, we have to ask the fundamental question: will the science that is being proposed tamper with this dignity?

This ethical consideration was why Bishop John Sherrington, speaking for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, stated that the Church is “opposed in principle to these procedures where the destruction of human embryos is part of the process.” There are other considerations too: the mitochondrial donation which would combine the DNA of three people into one IVF embryo would for the first time alter the human genetic make-up, not just of the IVF babies created by the process, but of future generations of children within affected families. As Christian Medical Comment said, there were five questions that needed to be discussed in Parliament: Is it necessary? Is it safe? Will it work? Is it ethical? Is the debate being handled responsibly? None of them was properly answered in the Commons.

Tory MP Fiona Bruce voiced the concerns of those opposing the vote: “Because they permit the genetic modification of human embryos and oocytes; because these regulations permit human embryos to be created only to be destroyed.” She also warned it would set a dangerous precedent: “Once we approve this procedure, where will it end?” Where indeed?

Naturally, all the experts lined up to support this new technique were keen to play down its ethical implications. Health minister Jane Ellison emphasised that it would not lead to a slippery slope of genetically modified designer babies and Dr Jeremy Farr, director of the Wellcome Trust, stated that “Families who know what it is like to care for a child with a devastating disease are best placed to decide whether mitochondrial donation is the right option for them.” The Prime Minister, whose son Ivan had suffered from epilepsy and cerebral palsy, added that “It is not playing God with nature” and that “it is much more like a kidney donation or lung donation rather than some sort of fundamental change that is being made.” As Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who voted against the amendment, pointed out, this analogy is patently untrue: “You are not curing somebody of something, you are creating someone different. People have compared it to blood transfusions. That is simply wrong.”

My final thoughts: why do people assume that white-coated scientists are simply neutral – or benign – in the work they do? They are no more so than historians (as historian David Starkey pointed out of his own Cambridge teacher, Geoffrey Elton, who influenced Hilary Mantel’s “slant” on the Tudor court of Henry VIII); why are such debates always conducted emotionally, with particular blighted families in the foreground? Does desiring a cure for a sick child have to trump all other considerations? Why should we think the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the fertility regulator, which has been behind so much undignified experimentation on embryos, speaks the same language or inhabits the same moral universe as Christians?

The fervent atheists who run the country in Lord of the World, a book I blogged about on Tuesday, constantly talk about “the progress of man.” We have come to think that all scientific breakthroughs and discoveries must be “progress”. In the hands of fallible humans, especially those who run the country, along with the pressure groups, experts and lobbies behind them, this is not the case.