After 25 years of genetic engineering of plants and animals, scientists are now ready to take the ultimate step: the genetic engineering of human embryos, as the first step towards creating GM babies. In the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now going through Parliament, it has removed the previous ban on creation of GM embryos, and will also allow the creation of a range of different types of human/animal hybrid embryos. This will be the first time any government has sanctioned genetic engineering of human embryos, and is against many international agreements. The creation of GM babies is not a hypothetical scenario: leading British scientists, such as Robert Winston and Ian Wilmut, have already patented techniques for doing this.
WE ARE NOW AT A CRUCIAL THRESHOLD: IT IS VITAL THAT WE TELL THE GOVERNMENT THAT HUMAN GENETIC ENGINEERING IS UNACCEPTABLE. If we do not stop it now, in ten years we could be living in a world of ‘consumer eugenics' in which:
• genetically ‘enhanced' human embryos are traded as commodities
• parents choose their children's characteristics like any other consumer product
• the rich are able to give their children built-in biological advantages over the rest of us.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED by the Government's promise to ban the creation of actual GM children, until the technology is safe. ( In fact, the Government has introduced a major loophole in this ban, see our legal briefing, and initially intended to eventually legalise actual GM children by executive decision with practically no Parliamentary debate.) The decision to allow scientists to begin research is the crucial decision. If the Government did not intend to ultimately allow the creation of GM babies, why permit scientists to begin research? Once the technology is thought to be safe, we will be subjected to hype and emotional blackmail about the supposed medical benefits of human genetic engineering, as we have been over gene therapy and stem cells, and about the need for British industry to stay ahead in the scientific race.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED by promises that this research will prevent suffering and genetic diseases. In fact, it is absolutely unnecessary. Many disability rights organisations say that all attempts to prevent the birth of disabled children are a continuation of eugenics, a view that HGA has much sympathy with. This a very difficult issue, which cannot be properly dealt with here. But if parents wish to avoid having children with genetic conditions, then there are already many options: they can use sperm or egg donors, pre-natal testing and abortion, or genetic testing of embryos; or they can simply remain childless or adopt children. What genetic engineering can do, that other technologies cannot is to produce ‘enhanced' 'designer' babies, and that is where the real market will be. Once we allow the technology to be developed for medical reasons, it will be impossible to prevent its use, here or in other countries, for ‘enhancement' purposes, just as drugs and surgery are being used now.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED by the government's arguments that its main aim is to allow basic biomedical research, rather than the development of the technology to create GM babies. The Government has only started using this argument since HGA alerted the media to the threat of GM babies. In fact, there are no scientists asking to be permitted to create GM embryos for research purposes at present. The government says it wants to ‘future proof' the legislation, so that it does not have to change the law again when scientists want to start new types of research in the future. While many people view genetic technologies as a runaway train, with very weak ethical brakes, the Government's future proofing amounts to setting the signal lights to green all the way up the track.
Those who are concerned by GM plants and animals should be equally concerned by the use of genetic modification to change human nature. The creation of GM babies will lead to the genetic essence of human beings being subject to market forces, and as with plants and animals this will lead to a loss of diversity and will create new inequalities. In the GM food debate it has often been said that the public backlash against GM could have been avoided if there had been democratic discussion at the early stages of developing the technology. But yet again, the Government is deciding to cross a fundamental ethical line simply because a few ambitious scientists are urging it to do so, and without any public discussion. SO NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL OF US TO ACT. Even if you live outside the UK, your help is vital, since the British Government is sensitive to international pressure.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Bill will be debated in the House of Commons in mid-May.
• Write to your MP letting them know your views on the Government's plans . It is always better to use your own words, but if you do not wish to, here is a sample letter that you can use. Please send copies of your messages to email@example.com.
• Write to the Minister responsible for the legislation: Dawn Primarolo MP, Department of Health, Richmond House, 79 Whitehall London SW1A 2NS; Andrew.Earnshaw@dh.gsi.gov.uk
• Support Human Genetic Alert's campaign: let us know what you have done, and, if possible, send us a donation to help with the campaign.
• For background documents, including the Bill itself, visit Background documents. For articles on the threat of HGM visit www.hgalert.org/topics/hge or http://www.genetics-and-society.org/technologies/igm/index.html