A BBC documentary on ‘saviour siblings’ broadcast last night gave little attention to the complex moral issues involved, a national newspaper critic has said.
The programme focused on two families with children who have Fanconi anaemia, a genetic illness which leads to bone marrow failure and is expected to dramatically shorten their lives.
But the documentary has been described as only a “fragment of a much longer, more complicated story”.
Saviour siblings are children created using IVF with the primary aim of providing spare-part tissue for an older brother or sister.
The practice of creating saviour siblings was made legal by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008, which passed amidst much ethical controversy.
The BBC documentary, entitled Having a Baby to Save My Child, followed two couples, one of which had spent nearly £30,000 on IVF in an attempt to create a saviour sibling.
The other couple’s older daughter said she thought the saviour sibling would “feel so amazing” knowing they had helped their sibling to stay alive.
But when the HFE Bill was going through Parliament concerns were raised that children who were born to help their siblings would be seen as ‘spare-part’ siblings.
Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, James Walton said that the programme “was less impressive as a moral debate – which wouldn’t have mattered so much if it hadn’t claimed to be one”.
He said: “Critics of ‘spare-part babies’ were regularly mentioned, but only ever in passing.”
The journalist continued that in “a perfect world” a documentary like this would show not only the birth of the saviour sibling but also the bone marrow operation.
Viewers would “maybe even find out how the laboratory-approved children felt in later life about owing their existence to medical necessity”, he went on.
He concluded: “As things stood, for all its warmheartedness, the programme seemed only a fragment of a much longer, more complicated story.”
Speaking in the Commons as the HFE Bill was progressing, David Burrowes MP said: “To help me to understand the impact of saviour siblings, I think about the situation in my own household.
“Yesterday evening, I was holding my one-year-old, Toby, and thinking to myself, ‘What problems would be created if Toby were to be a saviour sibling for his older brother, Noah, if, for the sake of argument, he had a serious genetic defect?'”
Mr Burrowes went on to say that if the older son became ill later in life and the younger son’s tissue could be used to ‘repair’ him that might leave Toby as simply a “spare parts sibling”.
He concluded: “That is unacceptable.”
Last August twins created by a couple through IVF to help treat an older son’s blood illness were described as the first saviour siblings.
Laurence Maguire and his partner Wendy Plant’s son has aplastic anaemia, a very rare blood condition.
The couple underwent IVF treatment after a worldwide search for bone marrow.
During a debate on the HFE Bill in the House of Lords, Christian Peer Lady O’Cathain also spoke out against the creation of saviour siblings.
She said: “To manufacture a person in this way is to offend against the respect that is due to the integrity of that person, no matter how compelling the goal of trying to cure.”
Lord Tebbit said at the time: “Because it might bring great benefits to particular people does not mean it should be done.
“If we accept arguments of that kind we are effectively saying that the end justifies the means.”