From the rather scant information available (the story having garnered little media attention), it appears that this week’s parliamentary debate on the Government’s mitochondrial donation bill followed a pretty familiar script. That script was written around four hundred years ago—in 1633, to be precise—and featured an ageing Galileo standing defiantly before the Roman Inquisition as it charged him with the crime of heresy for suggesting that the Earth moves round the Sun, rather than the other way about. According to one popular staging of the play, the guilty verdict was met with the words Eppur si muove—‘and yet it moves’—a rebellious assertion of science’s truth in the teeth of religious totalitarianism. But that’s likely a bit of melodrama inserted by Enlightenment boosters.
To be fair to our parliamentarians, the debate on the Mitochondrial Donation Law Reform (Maeve’s Law) Bill 2021 was not completely devoid of nuance, the Government having allowed MPs to vote according to their consciences, and thus to argue according to their intellects as opposed to their party managers. Some who rose to express concerns that scientists should not ‘play God’ did find it in themselves to support the bill. Liberal MP Julian Leeser, for example, claimed to have consulted religious leaders before deciding to support the proposed legislation. Nevertheless, when such concerns were raised, they tended to be raised from a religious perspective. In this sense, and good tempered though it was, the debate was a fairly standard example of the science-v-religion genre.
By contrast, the moral and ethical concerns of non-religious people were largely absent from the debate. For though medical ethics are still in the mix, their guiding principle of non-maleficence (as enshrined in the imperative to ‘do no harm’) is in practice too professionally focussed to be useful in the broader debate, where it is reduced to a question of procedural safety and the health of individual patients. As for alternative ethical frameworks—ecological ethics, for example —these are barely visible at all. In keeping with the techno-cultural zeitgeist, it is now the habit of secularists and materialists to accept whatever new science emerges as desirable and inevitable. The distinction between the scientific method—a process of investigation into natural phenomena that may never be bettered—and science as a social process, directed to contestable ends, has broken down almost entirely.
The legislation itself, however, would represent such a significant step in our attitude towards human life that it necessitates a much deeper engagement than this ‘trust the experts’ approach permits. Framed with the commendable aim of eliminating mitochondrial disease—a rare but potentially fatal condition that robs the body’s cells of energy—it would allow for the creation of an embryo containing nuclear material from a parent couple and mitochondrial DNA from a female ‘donor’, and would thus legalise genetic editing techniques that affect, not merely the ‘somatic’ cells, but the ‘germline’ (or reproductive) cells as well. In other words, it would allow the bio-engineering of a viable human embryo. One doesn’t need to believe in a god to recognise that as a radical step.
So radical would the step be, indeed, that current Australian legislation prohibiting genetic manipulation of human beings’ germline cells would have to be changed in order to accommodate it. The Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002, for example, would be amended to ensure that it is no longer an offence to make changes that allow (‘under a mitochondrial donation licence’) the creation of an embryo with ‘the genetic material of more than two people’ or to make ‘changes to [an embryo’s] genome that would be heritable by the child’s descendants’. Supporters of the bill will often claim that mitochondrial donation (or ‘three-person IVF’) is no different in kind from organ donation, and it is true that mitochondria do play a role within the cell analogous to an internal organ. But the comparison masks far more than it reveals. We’re talking here about modification at the level of the germline cell, not the replacement of a single body part in an otherwise healthy, developed human being.
Many of the bill’s supporters, of course, are people who have suffered, or whose children have suffered, from some form of mitochondrial disease, and it would be both unwise and callous to reject their arguments out of hand. But the media’s habitual focus on those sufferers (a focus echoed in the naming of the bill, which alludes to the five-year-old girl, Maeve Hood, who is said to have inspired the legislation) is misleading in at least two ways. First, it entirely ignores the question of how such scientific interventions might affect human societies over the long term; and, second, it misrepresents mito donation as a technology aimed at alleviating physical suffering, where in fact its principal effect will be to allow known carriers of faulty mitochondrial DNA to have genetically-related children. That’s a big deal, obviously, but it isn’t the same as finding a cure for a disease that no one knows how to prevent or predict.
The two points are related, of course. For it is the fact that we have lost the habit of subjecting new techniques to scrutiny that ensures that ‘individual choice’ will be invoked as the arbiter of what is permissible. But there are many other considerations that one might make about new technologies were one in the habit of doing so. The emergence of advanced genetic technologies (and of CRISPR-Cas9 in particular) raises social and philosophical questions that the world has barely begun to wrestle with. How are genetic interventions likely to affect our notions of parenthood, disability, or human equality? If a society consisted of human beings who had been partly engineered or edited, would we think about human life in the same way or would we lose a sense of reciprocity with others? The notion that (potential) human beings could be ‘mined’ in order to provide other humans with the material they need to be healthy and happy represents a momentous shift in how we view human being itself. Scientists who work with genetic-editing technology will often talk about ‘off-target effects’, by which they mean the unintended consequences of particular genetic interventions. But the off-target effects of gene-editing technologies go far beyond issues of patient safety. The danger, writes Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff, is that ‘life devolves into just another object of conscious design, valued mainly for our ability to manipulate it, commodify it, and profit unequally from those acts of appropriation’.
The danger isn’t theoretical. In the absence of any moral or ethical framework with which to reflect on new technologies from a non-religious and non-medical perspective, capital has had a field day. Consider that the fertility services market is now estimated to be worth (US) $20 billion, and that many IVF clinics around the world already allow parents to choose their child’s sex and eye colour (for example), or are working to produce genetic profiles of embryos with a view to marketing them to hopeful parents. Meanwhile, biotechnology companies are queuing up to exploit whatever opportunities emerge from new genetic technologies, or indeed from established technologies whose application is limited by laws such as The Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002. Today, the biotech industry is considered to be worth over $100 billion in the United States alone, while globally it is expected to surpass $700 billion by 2025. The pressure placed on politicians by this industry is already immense, and the information gleaned from the techniques refined in the development of mitochondrial donation is bound to lead to further pressure for deregulation from the biotech sector.
While some commentators seemed determined to regard all slippery slope arguments as axiomatically fallacious, it is clear that the Government’s mito bill, which passed the lower house 92 votes to 29, is of a piece with a broader promethean attitude towards nature, up to and including our own, and that what is dearly needed going forward is a more reflective approach to new technologies, especially those that reconstitute nature at the most fundamental level. Certainly the sub-Galilean register of science-v-religion is no longer fit for purpose, not least because it is the ‘technosciences’ that are now substantially calling the shots, and are fast becoming an object of devotion, if not of faith. Too sensible to believe that human futures are written in the stars, we have submitted ourselves to processes over which we have precious little control, and of which we have even less understanding. The world is moving all right—too fast.
Richard King is a critic and author based in Fremantle, WA. His website is http://bloodycrossroads.com/