Lord Carey’s speech in favor of Mitochondrial DNA donations

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the Daily Mail in support of legislation permitting “three parent families”

I fear I will be in trouble once again with some people in the church as I find myself, in conscience, having to go against the line that the churches are taking on so-called three-parent families. 

I am, to be clear, firmly in favour despite the opposition shown by some of my colleagues and a powerful lobby of critics from abroad.

A Bill passed by the House of Commons earlier this month will allow for a procedure in which a small proportion of a third person’s DNA is used to create an embroyo in order to prevent potentially fatal genetic disorders. Scientists have found techniques to replace faulty mitochondrial DNA  – mitrochondria are microscopic energy creating structures in the human cell – with donated DNA, and Britain is set to be the first country to endorse the practice.

It has proved hugely contentious. Yesterday 55 Italian MPs asked our own House of Lords to reject the Bill when it is discussed this week, claiming the consequences ‘cannot possibly be contained within the confines of the United Kingdom.’

But this sort of opposition is unfathomable to me. This is an exciting medical intervention like the first transplants were for families who are suffering from rare conditions which prevent them from having children naturally.

The idea of three parent babies is a distraction because the mitochondria are a mere fraction of what makes us human. This is much more like an organ transplant.

Only one in 5000 Britons suffer from mitochondrial conditions but scientists estimate that around 2500 women are carrying these faulty cells which could be passed onto their children.

Vickie Holliday is likely to be one of the first to receive this new treatment. She already has a daughter, Jessica, who has Leigh Syndrome caused by her mother’s faulty Mitochondrial cells.

She loves her daughter but knows that she will never walk or talk and is likely to die as a result of her vital organs failing.

She says, ‘When you are given the worst possible news it helps to have a little bit of hope. It would mean so much to us to be able to have a healthy child.’

Let us be in no doubt whatsoever, the new techniques, the result of amazing research done at Newcastle University, offer hope to those suffering families who are at the mercy of such a terrible condition.

These families are now being given hope through the donation of healthy DNA – a  technique that could prevent their children suffering a gradual and painful death as their organs collapse one-by-one.  

Viscount Ridley, the distinguished science writer and a supporter of the technique, has accused the churches of leaving a small number of families in great pain and suffering.

He has written: ‘Surely… most church-going folk are not in the business of denying people hope merely to avoid the remote theoretical possibility of – well, of what exactly? I still cannot see a reasonable objection to this magnificent piece of technology in the service of human compassion.’

I have to agree with him. It is heart breaking to see the churches once again opposing medical advances which have the potential to end great suffering.

Compassion is at the heart of the Christian faith. The love of God and of our neighbour comes first and last in the profession of Christianity. The link between faith and healing is very close indeed. Look only at the number of hospitals which are named after a saint. 

I long for the church to end what some scientists feel is an overly negative opposition to extraordinary medical advances. One of the first steps is to address realistically the issue of pain at the end of life which has led so many of us to call for assisted dying for the terminally ill. But it is time also for the churches to approach science and medicine more positively. The church risks being seen as irrelevant.

Conservative Christians have opposed transplants, IVF (in vitro fertilisation), embryo experimentation and stem cell research.  Furthermore, the Church and science are always portrayed as being at odds. In the western tradition, the shameful treatment of Galileo is often cited even though, for the most part, the ‘perpetual opposition’ of religion and science is a misreading of history.

Thankfully, most Christians are not flat-earthers. We embrace modern science and the vast majority of its developments. The Church of England has long been involved in the ethics committee of the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) and has supported this means of regulating scientific advances. We have resisted the notion that every single development is to be seen as a ‘slippery slope’ to one peril or another. The primary motive must be compassion and the aim of relieving suffering.

So why have we become trapped in perpetual doubt and fear when it comes to medical advances which involve issues to do with the beginning of life. I am constantly puzzled by the fact that Christians who believe in a gospel of hope find themselves in a perpetual state of opposition to medical and scientific gains.

The truth for the Church of England is that in spite of a few reservations about whether or not hereditary characteristics would be affected by the technique, there are absolutely no grounds for opposition.

The Bishop of Swindon, Lee Rayfield, who played a key role in the consultation is largely supportive. He recently said: This has to begin with compassion. Compassion towards those who are sick and suffering and for those who long to bear children.’

The Bishop of Swindon wants there to be proper safeguards. I agree.

But let us remember that this week in the House of Lords we are being asked to agree regulations to enable the HFEA to consider each family’s treatment on a case by case basis taking expert advice into account. Our country has an enviable tradition of responsible and thorough testing of research, and we can trust these experts to continue their painstaking work to enable families affected by serious mitochondrial disease to have healthy children.

The main opposition to using external DNA is not from the Church of England and I find it surprising therefore that the Bishops seem to be preparing to support a delaying motion from the Roman Catholic peer Lord Deben. It would received by suffering families as a very cruel and unnecessary delay after seven years of investigation, consultation, and Parliamentary discussion and scrutiny. I respect the Roman Catholic position but it must be recognised that it is an absolutist position with no room for compromise on issues such as this.

Like most peers I have received many emails and letters on the issue. Much of the opposition is coming from abroad with well-organised email campaigns from Roman Catholics from Latin America, and Eastern Europe.  

But if we cannot make any alteration, then we will deny ourselves the possibility of ever improving life for those who suffer from these intractable conditions.

Turning our backs on these scientific advances in the field of genetics is uncaring and unloving. We live in an exciting time for medical research and we must support the work of caring scientists and doctors with the resources and proper regulations to do their work.

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