International Commission on HHGE Channels Warnock Committee

In various ways, the International Commission on Heritable Human Genome Editing (HHGE) is built on the same grounds as the former Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Great Britain).  That committee was charged to “consider recent and potential developments in medicine and science related to human fertilisation and embryology; to consider what policies and safeguards should be applied, including consideration of the social, ethical and legal implications of these developments; and to make recommendations.”[1] 

The Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology became known as the Warnock Committee, named for its chair, philosopher (later, Baroness) Mary Warnock.  The  “recent” development of concern was a reference to the birth of Louise Joy Brown on July 25, 1978:  the world’s first baby born through in vitro fertilization (IVF).  “Potential” developments the committee addressed during their two-year stint included the use of human embryos in drug testing; nucleus substitution (cloning) to provide replacement organs; and the insertion of “replacement gene(s)” for genetic defects.[2]  These all have in common the use of embryos for research.  The majority of the Warnock Committee argued that if the embryo could not feel pain, and “there were no absolute outrage of general moral sentiment,” then “the embryo might be used for research”[3] In her memoir, Warnock wrote that, in the Warnock Committee deliberations, the “disputes were on the whole civilized:  we did not have any rampaging pro-lifers on the committee . . .”[4]

The recommendations made by the Warnock Committee became Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 (HFE Act) and gave rise to the regulatory agency, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), established 1991.  The latter is the body responsible for the licensing and inspection of all labs in the U.K. that deal with IVF, donor insemination, and human embryo research, as well as the storage of sperm or eggs.  The HFEA also regulates and oversees the use of mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT) in the United Kingdom.  The International Commission on Heritable Human Genome Editing (HHGE) used the MRT example to design it own “translational pathway”:

By a “translational pathway’ for HHGE, the Commission means the steps that would be needed to enable a proposed clinical use to proceed from preclinical research to application in humans. Elements that formed the pathway leading to clinical use of mitochondrial replacement techniques in the U.K. have informed the Commission’s development of a clinical pathway toward HHGE, presented in this report. (p 39/225)

The HHGE has, as a portion of its task,

a need for a framework to inform the development of a potential pathway from research to clinical use, recognizing that components of this framework may need to be periodically revised in response to our rapidly evolving knowledge. In addition, other important discussions are ongoing internationally about the implications for society of human germline genome editing and include issues such as access, equity, and consistency with religious views. (p 44/225)

Here’s hoping the HHGE will do a better job of listening than the Warnock Committee did.  Natasha Hammond-Browning, evaluating the Warnock Committee’s handling of the pieces of evidence submitted to it, concluded this:

. . . the Warnock Committee adopted a utilitarian approach in drawing up its recommendations, and it could be assumed that any evidence that adopted this approach would have been favoured over other bright line viewpoints; for example, the view that the embryo must be protected from conception, or the view that the embryo/foetus should not be protected at any stage of development.[5]

[1] Mary Warnock, A Question of Life:  The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation & Embryology, (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 4.

[2] Ibid., 71-4.

[3] Ibid., xv.

[4] Mary Warnock, A Memoir – People & Places (London: Duckbacks, 2002), 33.

[5] Natasha Hammond-Browning, “Ethics, Embryos, and Evidence:  A Look Back at Warnock,” Medical Law Review 23(4): 588-619; doi: 10.1093/medlaw/fwv028.

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