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Tuesday 3 February 2015, Rob Lyons

Three cheers for ‘three-person’ IVF

Today's vote in parliament was a good example of democracy in action.

Today, the House of Commons voted to allow the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) the power to approve mitochondrial donation. Mitochondria are the ‘power stations’ of cells, converting food into energy. The vote means that in cases where a woman’s eggs or an embryo has defective mitochondria, these can effectively be replaced with mitochondria from another woman. Although this is often referred to as ‘three-person IVF’, in truth the DNA in the mitochondria is quite distinct from the DNA in the nucleus of a cell that actually determines the physical attributes of an individual. Proponents of mitochondrial donation refer to the technique as ‘2.001-person IVF’, because that is how little DNA is actually being donated.

The vote makes the UK the first country in the world to approve mitochondrial donation. It’s very welcome for the UK to be at the forefront of using a medical advance that promises to help many children who would otherwise suffer with mitochondrial disease, with potential problems including brain damage, muscle wasting, heart failure and blindness.

And the process is a model for what should happen in cases of new medical or scientific advances creating ethical issues. First, there has been a long and careful debate about the issue, backed by scientific research. Secondly, the decision on the principle of the issue has been decided in parliament, by the representatives of the people, and not by a judge in an appeal court or some unelected expert or quango. By being forced to argue for the change in the law, proponents have created a solid basis of support in society and dealt with a variety of criticisms and concerns. That’s how democracy should work.

An excellent survey of the debate is the Debating Matters topic guide for the debate ‘We should embrace three-person babies’, which will feature in the forthcoming regional finals of this year’s competition. Taking a step back, the wider issues relating to how society should deal with such ethical issues was discussed at a Battle of Ideas debate in 2012, Banning the Brave New World? The ethics of science. Follow the link to watch the debate.

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