Thursday, September 02, 2004

Babies Risk Being Commodities: Geneticist

Babies at risk of being 'commodities', says Lord Winston

Genetic pioneer Lord Robert Winston says the technology that he helped develop now risks turning babies into "commodities".

The British test-tube baby doctor, who fronts television series such as The Human Body and the current Child of Our Time, gave a warning in Auckland yesterday against parents having a new baby specifically to use its tissues or body parts to save the life of a sick older sibling.

"It does raise important questions about whether society might be at risk of allowing babies to be used as commodities," he said.

"For me it's an ethical issue. You are subjecting an embryo to removal of cells for DNA analysis that is of no benefit to that embryo. That is having a medical procedure without any informed consent."

Lord Winston, who arrived yesterday to speak at a charity art auction for the Liggins Institute, is scathing about scientists such as the American Dr Panos Zavos who are using the new techniques for "Frankenstein" projects such as cloning the genetic material of two dead people to bring them back to life.

"It may be that they have cloned someone," he said.

"But to date, as far as we can say, virtually every animal species which has been cloned has turned out to have some problems with its genetics. It's almost unthinkable that that wouldn't happen in humans too.

"Therefore if they did clone someone, they would be throwing themselves open to the worst imaginable legal claim."

In contrast, he said, true scientists were far more cautious.

"It's not the scientists and medics that are jumping ahead of society. Often we are more conservative and want to go more slowly."

He believes Britain's regulatory body was wrong when it decided recently to allow genetic testing of test-tube baby embryos to choose those that had the right tissue type to help a sick older child.

If the older child had a rare kind of anaemia, a shortage of certain blood cells that made the child weak, would it be right to select a new baby that might then have difficulty creating its own blood cells? Would it be right to use its tissue to repair the older sibling's bone marrow?

"What happens if it doesn't work?" Lord Winston asked.

"Can you then use [the baby] a few years later to be a bone marrow donor? It's then becoming a more conscious individual.

"What if the older sibling's kidney fails? Could the new child then be used for renal transplantation?

"That individual may be sucked into being forced to make the sorts of decisions that a child of that age should not be expected to make. It may be under pressure from the family to become a donor for a weak older brother or sister."

Ethically, he said, it would be better to put more effort into finding adults with the same tissue type who could make conscious, voluntary decisions to donate tissue or organs.

Similarly, it was now possible to choose the sex of test-tube babies and make sure they did not contain certain genetic abnormalities. But in that case, Lord Winston believes, most parents will not take the technology to its ultimate conclusion of "designer babies".

"It may in the long term be possible for parents to choose the genetics of embryos, but I have a lot of reasons for believing that they won't want that," he said.

"If you ask most parents what they want, it's not anything other than, 'I want my baby to be normal'."

The Labour peer said he did not want to be involved in Child of Our Time, the BBC series that is following the lives of 25 "millennium babies" born on January 1, 2000.

"I thought it was quite dreadful stuff," he said.

But he changed his mind when a colleague told him the first episode was the best television he had ever done.