Designer Babies: should we play God?

A review of the third talk by the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield in a series of four on “Science & Faith: Big Questions in Faringdon Corn Exchange” 

Nearly 90 people came to Faringdon Corn Exchange on 11th January to hear the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, talk and answer questions about this topical and challenging issue. With a background in Immunology research, Dr Rayfield has been a member of the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) since 2012.

Dr Rayfield started by asking the audience what we understood by the phrase “Designer Baby”. He then took us through a brief review of pertinent medical techniques, including amniocentesis, fetoscopy and Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), that are already in use to diagnose genetic abnormalities causing conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, Thalassaemia and Cystic Fibrosis. PGD is used to screen embryos produced in the laboratory to select those that are free of diseases which are likely to be fatal in infancy, or significantly limit lifespan or quality of life. More controversially, parents may select an embryo with tissue matching a sibling born with a genetic disease to facilitate later tissue donation. Dr Rayfield stressed that these techniques have been developed with the good intention of reducing human suffering. We do not seek to “play God” but rather to “be human in God’s way”.

For some people the foetus is viewed as a person from the moment of fertilization, so they cannot accept a procedure which leads to the creation of “unwanted” foetuses. For others, including Dr Rayfield, our response must be more nuanced since 70% of naturally-conceived embryos fail to implant in the womb. We need to look beyond our initial reaction to decide what respectful and regulated use of unimplanted embryos may be permitted for human benefit. Dr Rayfield suggested that all medical interventions modify our natural bodies and therefore we shouldn’t view our DNA as sacrosanct. He stressed that the HFEA does not permit any laboratory work on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization, the stage at which recognizable organization of neural tissue is beginning.

Dr Rayfield, as a Church of England Bishop, believes that he should engage in the HFEA licensing process to build bridges and bring a Christian perspective that upholds the unique value of every person, created in the image of God. He sees human cloning as wrong because it denies the uniqueness of the individual. The Bishop said that modifying the genetic make-up of an embryo, currently not generally permitted under UK law, is a more controversial question. The HFEA is allowing research and treatment based on the use of donated mitochondria (the cell’s power supply) to replace faulty mitochondria in the maternal egg. This has been misleadingly described as making “3-parent babies”.

Current research on gene-editing, presently only licensed for treatment of non-reproductive cells, will make it possible to replace faulty genes. The Bishop is concerned about the danger that modifying the human genome may in future be promoted to maintain the UK’s world-leading research status and economic competitiveness, rather than continuing to be governed by strong medical and ethical principles.

For this reviewer, the take-home message was that genetic research is fast outpacing our ability to judge ethical issues. As Bishop Rayfield says, we need to have people involved in the licensing process who will engage in ethical, prayerful decision-making. We should pray that they will be enabled to speak truth to those in authority.

Mark Ritchie