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Mitochondrial Disease and the HFEA

20 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Readers are probably aware of the consultation that the HFEA launched this week on the use of mitochondrial replacement to prevent certain illnesses.  John Harris has a piece on it in The Guardian – and by gosh golly, he’s right*; the article is well worth a quick look.

My own ha’p’orth: some of the stuff in the consultation is a bit odd.  One of the sets of questions it asks has to do with what such a procedure would do to a child’s concept of identity.  But why is this a concern?  Suppose a child discovers that she’s been the recipient of a mitochondrial transplant: so what?  Why would that make the blindest bit of difference to her sense of identity?  Isn’t it wholly plausible that, if there is any impact, it’s not because of the source of the genes qua genes, but because of all the people around her telling her that it’s tremendously important and she should give a stuff?  But they might be wrong.  I’d stick my neck out and say that they probably are.  Genetic origins simply don’t matter.

(Ah – but if she’s brought up to think that they’re imporant, isn’t that enough to establish that they’re important to her – and so are important in some sense after all?  Well, no.  Imagine someone is brought up to think that the fortunes of West Ham United are important; they’ll be important to him.  But it doesn’t follow that they’re important; and it might be that, in treating them as important, our hapless Hammers fan ends up making himself much more miserable than he need be by worrying about things that don’t merit worry.  It could be that he ought not to think the football important.  The same applies to genes: if a person’s genetic origins are important to her, it doesn’t follow that they’re important, or that there’re no good reasons to think them less important.)

But lots of people seem to think that genes do matter, and so we get questions like this; and asking questions like this perpetuates the idea that it’s a question worth asking… and so it goes on.

*I’ve found myself saying that increasingly often of late.  Scary stuff.

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  • Jackie Leach Scully

    I’m not sure that it’s as simple as “asking questions like this perpetuates the idea it’s a question worth asking”. I agree with Iain that a smidgeon of mt DNA is highly unlikely to make any difference to a person’s ‘sense of identity’, whatever that is (I do think we have to leave open the possibility that we might, to our surprise, find that it does, and then we’d have to revisit some of our presuppositions). But i do also think that third party/public perceptions are likely to make a big difference here. And I don’t think those asking the questions, in the form of the consultation, can be blamed for somehow generating the sort of public perceptions that many of us think are wonky, or just wrong; they’ve been generated through a number of routes, including the media and efforts at the ‘public understanding of science’, and so on. For a *public* (rather than philosophical, or sociological, or scientific) consultation to ask these questions is right and proper, because they are already there in emerging public discourse. A public consultation needs to address these, and take them seriously, and ask why people think this, irrespective of whether they are scientifically grounded or philosophically coherent.
    Disclaimer: I’m on the HFEA’s consultation oversight group. So I would think all the above, anyway.

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