Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Mitochondrial DNA transfer

As I drove home yesterday with the radio on in the car, I heard Andrew Miller, the Labour MP who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology and who has a well known parliamentary engagement with questions of science and technology, observe that, in respect of the vote in favour of three-parent IVF by the House of Commons:
"Scientific evidence triumphed over belief".
That comment gains some context from part of  his contribution during the Parliamentary debate itself:
The ethical basis on which science is conducted in this country is world leading. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should be immensely proud of the successes—again—of our scientific community in a range of life science disciplines....
We are in a society where people are entitled to have their beliefs, and I respect those beliefs; everyone should be entitled to express their opinion. But this is about focusing on the needs of that small part of the population that I mentioned. I urge the House, in coming to a conclusion this afternoon, to think about those families, to focus on their needs and to set aside general beliefs in the overwhelming interest of that small part of the population who have suffered immensely and who have an opportunity at their disposal because of the extraordinary science that has been advanced. 
[In parentheses, The BBC News website also reports, under the headline MPs say yes to three person babies views like the following:
Proponents said the backing was "good news for progressive medicine".
"This is world leading science within a highly respected regulatory regime." (Public Health Minister Jane Ellison )] 
I am clearly citing only two dimensions within yesterday's debate in Parliament, but they do strike me as being a very worrying dimensions. The first represents what one might call a "scientific ambition", in which, for some at least, the wish to go ahead with the techniques of mitochondrial DNA transfer is informed and/or motivated by a sense of pride in UK science. That references are made by two  Parliamentarians with particular prominence in the field of health and science to "world leading science" and "extraordinary science" when, for the families involved, the question at stake is not the status of the science as science but rather the efficacy of the science as a treatment, seems to me to have been exceptionally misguided.

The second dimension is the way in which Andrew Miller refers to "beliefs" as if they should be of no account in the debate. He indicates his respect for the beliefs that others hold, but then goes on to say that those "general beliefs" should be set aside. "Beliefs" can be respected; but they should not be allowed to influence the outcome of the debate or of the practice of science and medicine that will be consequent upon that outcome. It is, of course, an exaltation of the knowledge that is gained by scientific study over and above that knowledge that is gained through other fields of study - scientism. In so far as Andrew Miller's position has any ethical content, it is simply that of consequences that are expected to be positive in the respect of offspring born to the families affected - consequentialism. That in itself represents an ethical "belief"; but other ethical methodologies that examine what is right or wrong from an understanding of persons and the good of persons and might come to a different conclusion than a consequentialist approach are to be set aside.

Just as Andrew Miller believes his own belief - in scientific evidence - should be allowed a play in society, so should the different belief of others also be allowed a play. That is the quintessential British value of democracy (though I would suggest that its value does not arise from anything British but from the nature of democracy itself). And to play off scientific evidence against ethical or religious belief as if they conflict is also wrong. Reason, of which scientific endeavour forms a dimension, and what Andrew Miller denotes by the word "belief" should go alongside each other in the search for what is morally right.

When Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Westminster Hall, within the same precincts in which yesterday's debate took place, he observed:
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles....
Religion (is) .... a vital contributor to the national conversation....
I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life. 
Perhaps Andrew Miller might like to take note.


Deacon Augustine said...

I think you make a good point about the belief systems of scientism and consequentialism being given unwarranted prominence here.

I also think his comment that "The ethical basis on which science is conducted in this country is world leading." is quite laughable. The only ethic which applies in this country in questions like this is that of scientism. If they were honest with the people who are supposed to benefit from this treatment, they could not even claim a consequentialist ethic. These people are going to be guinea pigs for a technique which even in mice has been shown to produce cognitive impairment in the offspring. They have no idea what the consequences are likely to be in the human babies which are engineered.

But just so long as scientific understanding is advanced, they don't really care what the consequences will be. The only consequences we know for sure are the fate of those embryos which are not selected for implantation - death.

Joe said...

Work commitments mean that I have not followed the debate about this issue closely, so I can't really comment on the science concerned. I was just somewhat taken aback when I heard Andrew Miller's remark as I drove home - it appeared a particularly crass observation for him to have made.