On 24th February 2015 the House of Lords considered a Motion to Approve the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015, alongside a Motion from Lord Deben not to approve the Regulations but to set up a Joint Committee of Parliament to consider the issues in more detail.
The Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Rev James Newcome, spoke during the debate, setting out his own position and that of the Church of England on the question of Mitochondrial Donation (also known as ‘three parent babies’).
Earl Howe concluded the debate on behalf of the government. An extract from his remarks can also be found below.
Concluding the debate, Lord Deben put his amendment to a vote, which was defeated: Contents 48; Not-Contents 280. The Bishops of Carlisle, Ely, St Albans and Worcester voted in favour of the amendment by Lord Deben. The Bishop of Norwich voted against the amendment. The Bishop of Bristol abstained.
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, for those among us—and I include myself—who are not scientists, this is a demanding topic. In fact, I guess that even those who are scientists do not always find it exactly straight- forward. A significant part of that complexity derives not from the difficulty of the science itself but from the different—sometimes diametrically opposite—things that we are told by people who have been studying and researching mitochondrial transfer for many years.
Like many others in your Lordships’ House, I have recently attended a number of presentations, drop-ins and seminars on this subject. I have also read through the many written representations that have been referred to and which most of us will have received. They mirror the speeches being made in this debate.
On the one hand, we are assured, as we have been today, that scientists are clear about both the safety and the efficacy of mitochondrial transfer. It is no different from giving a blood transfusion or changing the batteries, so there is no problem there. On the other hand, we are warned by scientists—not just the correspondents to whom my noble friend Lord Turnberg referred—that mitochondrial transfer is a form of genetic modification which does affect the germ line, albeit not the nucleus, and could have a potential impact on the traits of any children, and their children, born as a result of this procedure. Some suggest that this would involve crossing a key bioethical threshold that we could later regret, and we are all aware of the pressure that is being brought to bear on us from elsewhere in the world.
In addition to all that, from a purely ethical point of view, as my noble friend Lord Deben mentioned, one form of treatment, maternal spindle transfer, is for many people clearly preferable to the other type—pronuclear transfer. Unfortunately, as my noble friend Lord Patel pointed out, the spindle method is currently less stable, although that may change.
The so-called “genius” of the Church of England has always been its via media—the middle way—and that is where I find myself today. Over the last few years, we have consistently taken a fairly nuanced position on this subject. Despite some misleading press reports, we are not in principle opposed to mitochondrial transfer, and it makes a pleasant change for the church not to be against something. Indeed, I explained this to the Minister, Jane Ellison, before the debate in the other place and she referred to our conversation in her comments there. But, at the same time, we have always counselled a degree of caution, given the potential implications of this development. In particular, we have always argued that the research tests into safety—set out quite clearly as essential before any further move is made by no less than the HFEA expert panel in 2011— should be completed and reported before these regulations are approved. That has not yet happened. We are therefore disappointed by the element of rush now, which I guess could be occasioned by the forthcoming election. I was talking this morning with a GP friend, who said that she could not imagine any drug or treatment being authorised before all the necessary tests had been undertaken and reported. In this case, that clearly, according to the HFEA’s own recommendations, has not been achieved, even though, as we have been reminded, the research has of course been taking place for several years.
Like every other Member of your Lordships’ House, I am very keen to see help offered to couples who face the terrible prospect of a child born with mitochondrial disease. I also know which of the conflicting scientific viewpoints I would rather believe. To reiterate, both personally and as a representative of the Church of England I am basically very much in favour of this development. However, I cannot ignore the compelling arguments against pushing this through in haste, and for that reason I am minded to vote for the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. I know that it is regarded by some as a wrecking amendment. I do not see, read or hear it in that way. I would hope that any Joint Committee’s work could be completed without undue delay. For the same reason, if we reach a Division on the initial Motion before us, I will feel compelled to abstain.
Earl Howe: My Lords, as I fully expected, this has been a debate of very high quality, with a range of views, both for and against the regulations, eloquently expressed. My principal job now is to respond to the Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Deben and to some of the additional points raised by other speakers …..
As I have already set out, there has been extensive independent consideration of these issues during the lifetime of this Parliament. Noble Lords should not have the mistaken impression that the Government have in any way been acting in haste, as suggested by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. Mitochondrial donation has been subject to,
“more scientific review of its proposed process than any other medical technology”.
That is a description by independent commentators……