Modern science is a wonderful thing. Scientific discoveries save lives, make it easier for us to clean our house and let us travel all around the world effortlessly. But science also puts pressure on what is the difference between right and wrong.
Most laws, going right back to when Hammurabi was a boy, outlaw certain conduct, like killing or assaulting others. This is known as the natural law approach to ethics, based on the idea that we can discover what is "good" by investigating the true essence of human nature. The good of protecting human life is almost always part of any natural law.
Alongside the development of science, however, has been the rise of another ethical approach, utilitarianism. Under a utilitarian approach there are no strict bans on what not to do. Instead, we should do the greatest good for the greatest number.
When there are no taboos things start to get murky. We now have the scientific ability to genetically engineer a human life so as to remove defects that cause disease, or to enhance our strength, height or fertility. A utilitarian would say if these things make for greater happiness then we should do them.
Fortunately, our laws still retain much of the old wisdom of the natural law. Genetically engineering an embryo is illegal, as is human cloning, which uses similar techniques. This week, however, the Federal Parliament is debating laws that would relax these restrictions. If these laws pass it would be legal to create a baby that has genetic material from three parents so as to reduce the risk of mitochondrial disease.
Mitochondria are the things in our cells that allow us to convert food into energy. One in every 200 Australians have some form of defect in their mitochondria, and around one in 5,000 have serious defects that can cause muscle or neurological defects. In some cases the disease can be fatal.
There is no cure but scientists think they can remove the issue *in vitro* through genetic engineering. We get most of our mitochondria from our Mum, so under the proposed technique, material would be taken from two different eggs, and the father's sperm, to create a new embryo without the mitochondrial defects. The resulting new life would be implanted in the mother through IVF techniques.
Some of these methods propose creating two embryos (or zygotes) and transferring genetic material between them to remove the defects. One of these embryos is then discarded, which brings us back from science to ethics.
Is it right to create an embryo, which I would consider a human person, simply for the purposes of using this life to help another life? I am uncomfortable with the idea that any human life, no matter how young, is simply a tool to help someone else. Notwithstanding the benefits of potentially removing a debilitating disease, using human life as a mere instrument to help others opens a dangerous door to a world where life is no longer sacred, but simply another input to the utilitarian, ethical spreadsheet used to maximise "happiness".
There are also risks that this form of genetic engineering will change the human "germline". That is the changes made to remove the defective mitochondria will persist for all future generations, and we are not sure of the ramifications of this.
Each Member of Parliament will vote with his or her conscience on these issues. There are no party positions. I will be voting no because I do not think we should violate the fundamental law that every human life is sacred.