Britain is likely to become the first country to allow “three-parent babies”, according to our science reporter Nick Collins. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has recommended that the process – which involves taking a donor’s egg and replacing its nucleus with that of the would-be mother, before undergoing IVF – be made legal for people trying to have children.
It’s “three parents” only in that the DNA in the child’s mitochondria (the little ex-bacteria which live in our cells and provide energy) will come from the donor, rather than the mother. As Nick points out, that makes up around 0.02 per cent of the total DNA in the cell, and is entirely separate from the nuclear DNA. But what’s interesting is why the HFEA is recommending it: not only because it’s safe, but because after a major consultation, it found that “there is broad support” for the procedure among the public.
I find that interesting because it’s another step taken along the “playing God” route. IVF itself and test-tube babies were once thought of as playing God, but they’re standard now. Stem cell research was playing God, but has become more accepted. Genetic engineering is still viewed with a bit of the Biblical fear, but steadily it’s becoming more widespread.
As I’ve written plenty of times before, the “powers we dare not mess with” thing is as old as humanity: I dare say the first people who made fire were warned that they shouldn’t meddle with things beyond their ken. But as Douglas Adams said and as I’ve also written before, technologies that are around when you’re born are just ordinary; techologies invented before you turn about 35 are revolutionary and exciting; technologies invented after you turn about 35 are unnatural and wrong. Enough people must have been born since genetic modification became a useable technology for the balance to have shifted into the first two categories. Presumably the balance will shift even further in the next few decades, until mitochondrial replacement technologies – and people with “third parents” – are no more remarkable than contact lenses or artificial hips.
The really interesting question is: what’s next? Will human cloning start moving from the basket labelled “unacceptable affront to nature” into the one saying “controversial technology”? And from there, one day, to “standard practice”?