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The Science of Persuasion

By Michael Cook

How did scientists win the public relations war to persuade British Parliament to approve the creation of three-parent babies?

After years of discussion, the British House of Commons has approved the creation of embryos with genetic material from two women and one man by a substantial majority – a vote of 382 to 128. The House of Lords will probably pass the bill, which amends the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, later this year.

Prof Alison Murdoch, one of the technique’s pioneers, said with relief: “This is good news for progressive medicine. In a challenging moral field, it has taken scientific advances into the clinic to meet a great clinical need and Britain has showed the world how it should be done.”

Britain is the first in the world to legalise this technique. How its scientists succeeded in their public relations campaign for “progressive medicine” is a lesson for the US and Australia.

Control the brand.

There are two approaches, one beginning with a woman’s eggs and the other with an embryo, but both transfer the nucleus of a cell with faulty mitochondria floating in its cytoplasm into a cell with healthy mitochondria from a second woman. Murdoch and her colleagues called this “mitochondrial transfer” (MT); opponents called it “three-parent babies”. Perhaps the less emotive term was the more persuasive one.

Exaggerate the health impact.

MT helps couples whose children would otherwise have mitochondrial disease. They suffer from diseased organs, gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory disorders, neurological problems, autonomic dysfunction and dementia. There are various estimates of how many families would be helped by the IVF technique. Nature News said that 2000 women “could benefit” based on a data from a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, the letter actually said that only 152 women would be “at risk” each year. Of these, perhaps 10 or 20 might take advantage of the technique. If Parliament was really interested in numbers, why not back research into Ebola? That has killed thousands of children.

Focus on personal experience.

Some families have suffered terribly. One woman lost all seven of her children. A skilled public relations team used such stories to tug at the heart-strings of MPs and voters.

Frame it as a cure.

The media constantly described MT as a “cure”. In fact, MT is a way of creating new babies, not of curing those who are already born. The editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Julian Savulescu, chose his words very carefully in an article for the Guardian: “by doing this transplant at the very early stage of embryo development, the disease is cured. The children of the offspring of this procedure will themselves be free of mitochondrial disease. It would be eradicated forever in this family.” But in a video directed at members of Parliament he said, less cautiously, that “every year 150 children are born with this condition, and you have the power to cure them”. This is not true.

Redefine the human person as nuclear DNA.

Mitochondrial DNA constitutes only 0.054% of the total DNA in a cell, according to Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England. It is the DNA in the nucleus “which determines our personal characteristics and traits such as personality, hair and eye colour”. This was repeated over and over: mitochondrial DNA is just a battery pack. No one explained how mitochondrial DNA could be both negligible and also have such devastating effects upon a child’s organs, systems and personality.

Redefine genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is modification of the genome; scientists redefined it as modification of nuclear DNA. Stephen Wilkinson, a bioethicist at Lancaster University, wrote that “mitochondrial replacement isn’t genetic modification as such, but rather donation … nothing really new is being added to the human gene pool”. In other words, genetic engineering only happens if an artificial or non-human gene is added to an embryo.

Exaggerating the science.

Murdoch and her colleagues gave the impression that the science was settled, but this is far from the case. Paul Knoepfler, a leading American stem cell researcher, has no ethical objections but, like other scientists, he had reservations: “As strange as it may sound, although mitochondria have been studied for around 150 years, they remain in many ways still a new frontier for science with many mysteries. We are only now, for example, starting to understand how the mitochondrial genome works.”

Ted Morrow, a British biologist who studies the interaction of the nucleus and mitochondria, criticised the “battery pack” analogy in The Conversation, saying that “there is growing evidence that mitochondrial DNA has far-reaching effects on a range of traits, from the core ‘battery’ functions, to fertility, cognitive ability, ageing and even personality”.

In short, the victory in Parliament may have been a triumph for science, but it was the science of public relations, not the science of biology.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

How did scientists win the public relations war to persuade British Parliament to approve the creation of three-parent babies?