November 30, 2022

Three-parent embryo law passed in Australia

A bill authorising three-parent embryos sailed through the upper house of the Australian Parliament in late March after a fierce debate.

“Maeve’s Law”, named after the severely handicapped daughter of a woman who campaigned for the change, was strongly supported by both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Health Minister Greg Hunt. It passed the Lower House last year. It was the first conscience vote in the Federal Parliament since a same-sex marriage vote in 2017.

The bill was sold on compassionate grounds. Its supporters described it as a “cure” for severe types of mitochondrial disease which affect 50 or 60 children born in Australia each year.

But the word “cure” is a misnomer. In fact, the bill authorises the creation of an IVF embryo with genetic material from one man and two women. Children already born with mitochondrial disease cannot benefit.

The only other country which has passed such a bill is the United Kingdom. Other jurisdictions have reservations because it is effectively a kind of genetic engineering. Similar concerns landed a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, in jail and earned him international opprobrium for tinkering with the genome of three embryos.

The Mito Foundation was jubilant: “This marks a historic moment for the Australian parliament and an enormous milestone for the mito community. The passage of Maeve’s Law offers real hope for families impacted by mitochondrial DNA disease to have healthy children of their own.”

Bioethicist Margaret Somerville was critical of the bill: “Is it inherently wrong to alter the genome of human embryo? Is it designing a human person? And is making an alteration that will be inherited by all of that embryo’s future, children when they have children, is that inherently wrong? If you can say that any of those things are inherently wrong, that’s the end of the discussion, it means it is unethical to do this.”