Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques Debate

Yesterday, MPs debated mitochondrial replacement techniques where I made the following speech:

I approach this subject with a considerable degree of humility, for two reasons. First, I will never forget meeting a family in my constituency whose child suffers from mitochondrial disease; there was both a haunting sorrow in that family and also the hope that if these regulations are passed they will be able to have a child without this problem. Secondly, I am very aware of my own shortcomings in relation to biological science. As a chartered engineer, I am perhaps more competent in the physical sciences, and I do not mind admitting that I had to look up at least a few of the words in the regulations in order to understand them.

As I have listened to this debate, not only today, but previously, I have wondered whether we have really reflected on how science proceeds, because scientific truth is not established by authority or by democratic vote; it is established, as Karl Popper put it, through “conjecture and refutation”—trial and error. Someone who reads Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” will discover that it is possible for quite large bodies of knowledge to be developed with errors in them. When those errors are corrected, the paradigm shifts—that is a term we have all heard. That is how science proceeds, through trial and error. The reality is that there will always be uncertainty in any scientific procedure.

When the Commons Library summarised the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ review, the second point mentioned was this:

“The knowledge about these techniques is uncertain and could remain so for several generations—their use could potentially harm future persons.”

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), speaking from the Front Bench, made the point that, broadly, the question before us was whether there was a reason to withhold these techniques from people. If there is a reason, it is that they may do harm to future persons. I will not support the measure because this is inherently uncertain. That uncertainty is an inherent part of science, and it is no good appealing to authority to try to resolve the question, because different authorities will disagree and there is no way to resolve those disagreements apart from through empirical evidence, which we can obtain only by experimenting on humans.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a typically thoughtful contribution to this important debate. Does he not have to balance that uncertainty, which he points out fairly, with the 100% certainty that the children of mothers with mitochondrial disease will suffer?

Steve Baker: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why I began by expressing the humility I feel on this subject as a result of meeting and having had a lengthy conversation with a family who face just that issue. I remind myself, however, that we are dealing here not with a cure for those who have already been born, but with ensuring that those who are subsequently born do not suffer from that disease. If we were discussing a cure for those already living, perhaps the circumstances might be different.

Angela Smith: Is prevention not better than cure?

Steve Baker: Prevention certainly is better than cure, but the question is: at what risk? I simply accept that on the earliest stages of human life there is a space for conscience; we will have different beliefs, some of which will be religious, and it is a matter of conscience. There are noble reasons for disagreeing about that stage and about what is and is not legitimate risk taking with human beings.

The second point I wish to make is that in the course of this conversation there seems to have been what, at best, I could describe as “semantic sophistry” as to whether or not this process is genetic modification. As always, there is space for debate about the definition of terms, but the germ line is to be modified if these techniques go ahead. The Minister has stated that plainly—

Jane Ellison indicated assent.

Steve Baker: She nods, and I am grateful. If the germ line is to be modified, to me this is genetic modification. I heard the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) give a clear explanation of the separate origins, and he understands the science better than I do. But for me the key thing is not so much where these parts of the DNA identity of a person came from, but where they are now. Each one of us has our own particular DNA identity. This procedure changes only a tiny part of it, but, having changed it, we cannot know what the future consequences will be. I know that families will be affected by the decision, but I have to say, with great sorrow, that, when it comes to human beings, this degree of uncertainty cannot be borne by my conscience and I shall be voting against the regulations.

The full Hansard transcript of the debate is available here.


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Comments & Responses

One Response so far.

  1. Carol Wotherspoon says:

    A thoughtful and measured response. I admire your stand on this.