Forty years ago today, back in 1978 when Anna Ford had just become the first female ITV newsreader, the Yorkshire Ripper was on the loose, and inflation was below 10% for the first time in years, the world was stunned to hear that scientists had ‘played God’ and won.
Procreation, that most mysterious of human activities, had been pulled off by a bunch of scientists – and the result was the first ‘test tube baby’, born to a delighted pair of infertile parents.
Less than 20 years after The Pill had arrived on the scene, science was stepping in again: this time not to prevent conception, but to create life. But her arrival was also darkly symbolic, the physical manifestation of the potential threat that science and technology could pose to the most precious and personal dimension of our lives.
What’s more, this new technology meant scientists in the lab now had access to human embryos. Embryos that had previously been observed in vivo (in the womb) were now for the first time in the history of the human species accessible in vitro (literally, in a glass – a glass testtube). This brought with it a deeply divisive ethical issue: what are our obligations to an embryonic member of our own species?
After years of scaremongering headlines and much public angst, Margaret Thatcher’s government decided the answer was to appoint a Commission of Enquiry to determine a legal framework for this Brave New World technology. It did so in 1982 and appointed Mary Warnock, a philosopher and writer, as chair.
Her committee arrived at two core conclusions. First, it approved the use of IVF technology and, subject to certain restrictions (such as a ban on contracts for surrogacy), recommended that it be available in the National Health Service. It suggested the government set up an expert committee to regulate the field and keep track of new developments – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Second, it advised that the government should permit research on the human embryo, but only for up to 14 days after fertilisation.
After the conclusions were published in the Warnock Report, in 1984, debate focused mainly on this latter issue: should human embryos be biological material for laboratory experiments? Or should they be regarded as embryonic human beings and safeguarded from abuse?
While the Report’s “14 days” recommendation did become the basis for public policy in the UK, it’s interesting to note that there was dissent from two groups within the committee. Dissent B, which garnered three votes, argued that nothing should be done to prevent the implantation of an embryo created by IVF. In other words, there should be no research use of so-called “spare” embryos created for implantation but not required. Dissent C, with four votes, argued a middle way: “spare” embryos could be used for research, but there should be no deliberate creation of embryos for research purposes. So, taken together, seven votes out of 16 against creating research embryos; a close vote. (A detailed summary here.)
That’s particularly interesting, since the one international treaty on bioethics – the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, opened for signature in 1997 – specifically prohibits the creation of embryos for research. It’s no surprise that while as a member of the Council of Europe the UK was involved in negotiating this treaty, it has refused to sign it.
Britain might actually have invented the technology and then proposed an ethical/legal framework but other nations haven’t followed suit. Germany and France, have prohibited or severely limited such research and in the United States, where federal government funding is the core issue, both parties have refused to endorse creating embryos for research 1
This week, exactly 40 years after Louise’s ‘miraculous’ arrival, those early ‘playing God’ fears have intensified. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which has long functioned as the UK’s unofficial national bioethics committee, announced a few days ago that it was “morally permissible” to edit the DNA of a human embryo, sperm or egg to alter a future person’s characteristics. Nor did they rule out the alteration of cosmetic traits and “enhancements” – inevitably triggering designer baby headlines.
The report, Genome Editing and Human Reproduction: Social and Ethical Issues, specified that engineering efforts “must be intended to secure, and be consistent with, the welfare of the future person”, and “they should not increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society”. But for the first time we have a major report recommending the green light to inheritable genetic changes that go beyond efforts to correct inheritable disease.
As we know, notions of the “welfare” of the person and society come and go. Just what kind of interventions that now seem a good idea may be seen as damaging and subjective in a generation or two’s time? Are we so sure that, in 2018, we have things right?
Way back in 1943, C. S. Lewis, literary scholar, broadcaster, Christian layman, and perhaps the top public intellectual of his day, wrote a short book with the stunning title The Abolition of Man. He foresaw a future science that would enable us to design our children, and their children, in perpetuity. He pointed out that this make them the creatures of our power over the future. Our choices, however well-intentioned, will shape who they are.
This is dangerous territory. Should the passing beliefs of today, good or bad, be the criteria that shape the genes of our babies, grandchildren, descendants tomorrow?
Forty years back, a startling new technology opened up options good and bad. The provocative Nuffield report indicates that difficult decisions lie ahead.
Meanwhile, let’s wish a happy birthday to Louise Brown.