Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

I hadn’t heard about the controversy over the three-parent embryo until my wife brought it to my attention: The U.K. may soon approve a regulatory proposal that would allow scientists to create a human embryo using the DNA of three individuals. The idea is to remove damaged maternal DNA and replace it with genetic material from another woman, in order to reduce the risk of transmitting a mitochondrial disorder.

This all sounds on the surface very clean and high-tech and altruistic. Yet it turns out that lots of people oppose it, including members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and members of the European Parliament involved in its Bioethics Intergroup. What’s striking is how the opponents span the political spectrum. The open letter from the Bioethics Intergroup, for example, was signed by representatives of both the Conservative and Green parties. (Disclosure: Some opponents have consulted with my wife, who runs an advocacy organization that opposes the proposal.)

What’s the cause of all the worry? The Center for Genetics and Society, a U.S. nonprofit group, explains the concern this way:

We are very concerned that such techniques would be used as a door-opening wedge towards full-out germline manipulations, and that they could all too easily put a high-tech eugenic social dynamic into play. Also, as you know, inheritable human genetic modification is prohibited by the Council of Europe’s Oviedo Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights and by other instruments of international law.

The fear, in other words, is that the DNA modifications will take root not only in the child born of the adjusted embryo, but in all of that child’s descendants. When we speak of eradicating diseases, the image is not entirely unattractive. When we speak of granting parents the potential power to direct the evolution of their offspring, we are talking about something else altogether -- especially if, as is likely, that power rests principally in the hands of the well-to-do. Europeans, with reason, harbor a special sensitivity toward anything that hints of eugenics.

The objections seem to be having an effect. The British government recently told Parliament that the draft regulations currently being developed will be published shortly as part of a consultation -- meaning that the government will not, as it had suggested, simply allow the experimentation without further discussion.

This isn’t just a U.K. issue. The Food and Drug Administration had scheduled an October public meeting to discuss permitting clinical trials of three-parent techniques, only to postpone because of the government shutdown. Once one leading scientific nation decides to go forward, the rest will likely follow.

As my regular readers know, I tend to be wary of overregulation, so I am not suggesting that the right answer to these potential problems is a permanent ban. On the other hand, I do very much believe in public conversation. Thus I do think it makes sense, as the parliamentarians are asking, to continue the semi-official worldwide moratorium a while longer, so that the public might have the chance to reflect in a serious way on what lies ahead, and on the enormous social upheaval it is likely to spark.