Are We Creating a Society In Which Individuals Have Little Moral Worth?

Last month a generally jubilant response to the Commons vote on mitochondrial donation received wide coverage in the British media. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the House of Lords recently seconded the Commons decision to allow amendments to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act; a decision which will make the UK the first country in the world to have licensed a technique of ‘mitochondrial donation’.

Mitochondria exist in almost all cells in the body, and are responsible for converting food into energy. If they are defective, this can cause various forms of mitochondrial disease. Defective mitochondria are passed on from the mother to her offspring, so mothers with mitochondrial defects cannot guarantee that any genetic children they have will be free from these diseases.

The purpose of mitochondrial donation is therefore to allow prospective parents who know they are at risk of passing on mitochondrial diseases, the option to try and have healthy genetic children. This means using their genetic material, but the healthy mitochondria of a donated egg, to create a single healthy embryo.

And this sounds like a good thing. It sounds like the progress of humanity against the cruel unpredictability of nature. So why did news of the vote fill me with a cold, seeping disquiet?

After some considerable soul-searching, I realise that what has troubled me so deeply is the trade-off this vote represents; between satisfying the wants of some members of society on the one hand, and upholding principles about how we, as a society, assign moral value, on the other.

This trade-off arises because the very purpose of mitochondrial donation is to replace the genetic material of a healthy, donated egg with genetic material from the intended parents. This genetic material is what determines who we are; what eye and hair colour we will have, how clever or sporty we will be, etc.

But by replacing the genetic material of one entity with the genetic material of another, we are attaching a higher value or worth to the genetic material of one entity over the other.

The replacement of genetic material can take place either before or after the egg is fertilised. When it takes place before, the nucleus of the donated egg is destroyed to allow the nucleus from the intended mother’s egg to be implanted. It is in the nucleus that 99.9% of our genetic make-up is to be found. So, the result will be an egg which inherits the majority of its genetic material from the intended mother, but which has the healthy mitochondria of the donor. This egg is then fertilised with the sperm of the intended father.

When the replacement of genetic material takes place after fertilisation, both the donated egg and the intended mother’s egg will be fertilised with the sperm of the intended father, to create two embryos. It is the nucleus of the donor embryo which is then removed and destroyed, and the nucleus from the parent’s embryo which replaces it.

For some (including the Catholic Church) ethical concerns arise in particular around the second method, because it involves destroying the genetic material of an embryo. For those who believe fertilisation to be the point at which a human life is created, the destruction of an embryo amounts to the destruction of a unique human life.

I empathise with this concern, but my own concern relates less to the undesirable consequence of destroying a potential human life, and more to the way in which we assign moral value to the eggs or embryos within this procedure.

Destroying the genetic material of one entity, purely to accommodate the flourishing of another, leads us to a troubling implication; that the moral worth of these entities can be determined purely on the basis of their ability to satisfy our wants.

In either method of mitochondrial donation, there is a point at which two equivalent entities have been created (two eggs, or two embryos). Whatever we judge the moral worth of an egg or an embryo as being, the equivalent entities created through mitochondrial donation must be judged as having the same moral worth as one another. And yet one must be destroyed to allow the healthy development of the other. One is judged as a valuable potential life, the other as a non-entity. But the only thing that actually differentiates them is the origins of their genetic make-up.

Mitochondrial donation does not treat these entities as having any independent value or worth. Rather, it judges their value on the basis of their genetic origins. But while the intended parents may have a legitimate and understandable reason for preferring an egg or an embryo which inherited its genetic make-up from them, can we, or should we, translate this particular preference into a broader, societal one?

Should we, as a society, accept a process which ascribes moral worth to certain entities, not because of their potential to become unique human people, but because of the added value they will provide as human people in possession of a desired genetic make-up?

In approving a process which requires us to apply this criterion, we seem to cross an invisible line. We have treated the want of people within our society, to have genetically descended children, as the priority. But in doing so, we have set a disturbing precedent, which allows us to judge the moral value of entities outside ourselves, not in their own right, but on the basis of their role in providing for particular wants.

In his dystopian novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro envisages a society in which human children are created and reared with the sole purpose of donating their vital organs. These children are born into a world in which they have no moral worth. Their only function is to maximise the well-being and longevity of the incumbent population. Providing for the wants of the existing society, for increased health and longevity, is seen as the priority.

My worry is that the legalisation of mitochondrial donation takes us another step closer to a world in which moral value is synonymous with the satisfaction of particular wants. And once we take this step, I fear where will we end up.

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Featured Image Credit: “After Prometheus has created man out of mud, Athena breathes life into him, imparting reason and understanding. Part of a cycle on the myth of Prometheus by Christian Griepenkerl. Ceiling painting (oil on canvas) above the grand staircase in the Augusteum, Oldenburg.” (1877/78) Source: Wikimedia Commons