Friday, February 27, 2015

Mitochondria: who mentioned God?

Oh, they used the G word. The Guardian put “playing God” in the headline of my article today on mitochondrial replacement, and now everyone on the comments thread starts ranting about God. I’m not sure God has had much to say in this debate so far, and it’s a shame to bring him in now. But for the sake of the record, I’ll just add here what I said about this phrase in my book Unnatural. I hope that some of the people talking about naturalness and about concepts of the soul in relation to embryos might be able to take a peek at that book too. So here’s the extract:

“Time and again, the warning sounded by the theocon agenda is that by intervening in procreation we are ‘playing God’. Paul Ramsey made artful play of this notion in his 1970 book Fabricated Man, saying that ‘Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men they will not play God.’ To the extent that ‘playing God’ is simply a modern synonym for the accusation of hubris, this charge against anthropoeia is clearly very ancient. Like evocations of Frankenstein, the phrase ‘playing God’ is now no more than lazy, clichéd – and secular – shorthand, a way of expressing the vague threat that ‘you’ll be sorry’. It is telling that this notion of the man-making man becoming a god was introduced into the Frankenstein story not by Mary Shelley but by Hollywood. For ‘playing God’ was never itself a serious accusation levelled at the anthropoetic technologists of old – one could tempt God, offend him, trespass on his territory, but it would have been heretical seriously to entertain the idea that a person could be a god. As theologian Ted Peters has pointed out,
“The phrase ‘playing God?’ has very little cognitive value when looked at from the perspective of a theologian. Its primary role is that of a warning, such as the word ‘stop’. In common parlance it has come to mean just that: stop.’”

And yet, Peters adds, ‘although the phrase ‘playing God’ is foreign to theologians and is not likely to appear in a theological glossary, some religious spokespersons employ the idea when referring to genetics.’ It has, in fact, an analogous cognitive role to the word ‘unnatural’: it is a moral judgement that draws strength from hidden reservoirs while relying on these to remain out of sight.”

OK, there you go. Now here’s the pre-edited article.


It was always going to be a controversial technique. Sure, conceiving babies this way could alleviate suffering, but as a Tory peer warned in the Lords debate, “without safeguards and serious study of safeguards, the new technique could imperil the dignity of the human race, threaten the welfare of children, and destroy the sanctity of family life.” Because it involved the destruction of embryos, the Catholic Church inevitably opposed it. Some scientists warned of the dangers of producing “abnormal babies”, there were comparisons with the thalidomide catastrophe and suggestions that the progeny would be infertile. Might this not be just the beginning of a slippery slope towards a “Frankenstein future” of designer babies?

I’m not talking about mitochondrial replacement and so-called “three person babies”, but about the early days of IVF in the 1970s and 80s, when governments dithered about how to deal with this new reproductive technology. Today, with more than five million people having been conceived by IVF, the term “test-tube baby” seems archaic if not a little perverse (not least because test tubes were never involved). What that debate about assisted conception led to was not the breakup of the family and the birth of babies with deformities, but the formation of the HFEA in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, providing a clear regulatory framework in the UK for research involving human embryos.

It would be unscientific to argue that, because things turned out fine on that occasion, they will inevitably do so for mitochondrial replacement. No one can be wholly certain what the biological consequences of this technique will be, which is why the HFEA will grant licenses to use it only on the careful worded condition that they are deemed “not unsafe”. But the parallels in the tone of the debate then and now are a reminder of the deep-rooted fears that technological intervention in procreation seems to awaken.

Scientists supportive of such innovations often complain that the opponents are motivated by ignorance and prejudice. They are right to conclude that public engagement is important – in a poll on artificial insemination in 1969, the proportion of people who approved almost doubled when they were informed about the prospects for treating infertility rather than just being given a technical account. But they shouldn’t suppose that science will banish these misgivings. They resurface every time there is a significant advance in reproductive technology: with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, with the ICSI variant of IVF and so on. They will undoubtedly do so again.

In all these cases, much of the opposition came from people with a strong religious faith. As one of the versions of mitochondrial replacement involves the destruction of embryos, it was bound to fall foul of Catholic doctrine. But rather little was made of that elsewhere, perhaps an acknowledgement that in terms of UK regulation that battle was lost some time ago. (In Italy and the US, say, it is a very different story.) The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, for example, stressed that it was worried about the safety and ethical aspects of the technique: the Bishop of Swindon and the C of E’s national adviser for medical ethics warned of “unknown interactions between the DNA in the mitochondria and the DNA in the nucleus [that] might potentially cause abnormality or be found to influence significant personal qualities or characteristics.” Safety is of course paramount in the decision, but the scientific assessments have naturally given it a great deal of attention already.

Lord Deben, who led opposition to the bill in the Lords, addressed this matter head on by denying that his Catholicism had anything to do with it. “I hope no one will say that I am putting this case for any reason other than the one that I put forward,” he said. We can take it on trust that this is what he believes, while finding it surprising that the clear and compelling responses to some of his concerns offered by scientific peers such as Matt Ridley and Robert Winston left him unmoved.

Can it really be coincidental, though, that the many of the peers speaking against the bill are known to have strong religious convictions? Certainly, there are secular voices opposing the technology too, in particular campaigners against genetic manipulations in general such as Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, who responded to the ongoing deliberations of the US Food and Drug Administration over mitochondrial transfer not only by flagging up alleged safety issues but also insisting that we consider babies conceived this way to be “genetically modified”, and warning of “mission creep” and “high-tech eugenics”. “How far will we go in our efforts to engineer humans?” she asked in the New York Times.

Parallels between these objections from religious and secular quarters suggest that they reflect a deeper and largely unarticulated sense of unease. We are unlikely to progress beyond the polarization into technological boosterism or conservative Luddites and theologians unless we can get to the core of the matter – which is evidently not scriptural, the Bible being somewhat silent about biotechnological ethics.

Bioethicist Leon Kass, who led the George W. Bush administration’s Council on Bioethics when in 2001 it blocked public funding of most stem-cell research, has argued that instinctive disquiet about some advances in assisted conception and human biotechnology is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”: an idea he calls the wisdom of repugnance. “Shallow are the souls”, he says, “that have forgotten how to shudder.” I strongly suspect that, beneath many of the arguments about the safety and legality of mitochondrial replacement lies an instinctive repugnance that is beyond reason’s power to articulate.

The problem, of course, is that what one person recoils from, another sees as a valuable opportunity for human well-being. Yet what are these feelings really about?

Like many of our subconscious fears, they are revealed in the stories we tell. Disquiet at the artificial intervention in procreation goes back a long way: to the tales of Prometheus, of the medieval homunculus and golem, and then to Goethe’s Faust and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s automaton Olympia, the Hatcheries of Brave New World, modern stories of clones and Ex Machina’s Ava. On the surface these stories seem to interrogate humankind’s hubris in trying to do God’s work; so often they turn out on closer inspection to explore more intimate questions of, say, parenthood and identity. They do the universal job of myth, creating an “other” not as a cautionary warning but in order more safely to examine ourselves. So, for example, when we hear that a man raising a daughter cloned from his wife’s cells (not, I admit, an unproblematic scenario) will be irresistibly attracted to her, we are really hearing about our own horror of incestuous fantasies. Only in Hollywood does Frankenstein’s monster turn bad because he is tainted from the outset by his origins; for Shelley, it is a failure of parenting.

I don’t think it is reading too much into the “three-parent baby” label to see it as a reflection of the same anxieties. Many children already have three effective parents, or more - through step-parents, same-sex relationships, adoption and so forth. When applied to mitochondrial transfer, this term shows how strongly personhood has become equated now with genetics, and indicates to geneticists that they have some work to move the public on from the strictly deterministic view of genetics that the early rhetoric of the field unwittingly fostered.

We can feel justifiably proud that the UK has been the first country to grapple with the issues raised by this new technology. It has shown already that embracing reproductive technologies can be the exact opposite of a slippery slope: what IVF led to was not a Brave New World of designer babies, but a clear regulatory framework that is capable of being permissive and casuistic, not bound by outmoded principles. The UK is not alone in declining to prohibit the technique, but it is right to have made that decision actively.

It is also right that that decision canvassed a wide range of opinions. Some scientists have questioned why religious leaders should be granted any special status in pronouncing on ethics. But the most thoughtful of them often turn out to have a subtle and humane moral sensibility of the kind that faith should require. There is a well-developed strand of philosophical thought on the moral authority of nature, and theology is a part of it. But on questions like this, we have a responsibility to examine our own responses as honestly as we can.


JimmyGiro said...

You've argued this like a 'Jesuit'; claiming all naysayers are as religious conservatives... which you presume to be a bad thing!?

Meanwhile you've neglected all socialist radical regimes, that have espoused grand social engineering; from Stalin to Mao Zedong. It's not that God or his followers are against it, it's that the State is for it, that should ring the alarm bells!

Philip Ball said...

Arguing like a Jesuit - I like that! But I argued in Unnatural that the idea that totalitarian states want to (or at least, have any real hope to) genetically engineer a master race is a myth.

JimmyGiro said...

In line with the destruction of the heterosexual family, education, and evolved traditions generally, it is not a master race that is being promoted, but more of a morally paralysed society, that will do as it is bidden.

You don't need to rule by being a 'master race', you simply have to hobble everybody else; something clearly in the remit of State influence.

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