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Monday, March 2, 2015

Three-Parent Babies: A Pro-Life Ethical Analysis

[Today's guest post by Victoria Godwin is part of our paid blogging program.]

The UK Parliament voted early last month to allow for the creation of children using the biological DNA from three people, effectively becoming the first country to officially approve this technique. The aim of this technology is to allow parents with a high likelihood of passing down genetic diseases, particularly mothers who carry genes coding for mitochondrial disease, to have healthy biological children. Mitochondria, which are essentially the energy “power houses” of our cells, are passed down to children by only the mother. A child with an inherited mitochondrial disorder will likely not survive long after birth, or will be severely disabled if he or she does. Proponents of the three-parent measure point to Sharon Bernardi, a UK mother who lost seven of her children to mitochondrial disease, as the type of person who would benefit from the technique, along with an estimated 150 eligible parents in the UK each year. The three-parent method of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) would not only allow parents to have children free of certain incurable genetic diseases, but would essentially eradicate mitochondrial disease from a genetic line. Sounds pretty great, right? But like with all technology involving the creation of new human beings, it's not that simple.

For pro-lifers, the primary issue is that the three-parent IVF process can involve the destruction of human life. There are actually two methods: “egg repair” and “embryo repair.” Both are modifications of IVF (which is controversial in its own right). Briefly, in “egg repair,” two eggs are involved: one from the mother, and a donor egg that has healthy mitochondria. The nucleus of the donor egg is removed and discarded, and the nucleus of the mother’s egg is inserted into the donor egg. The new egg, which contains the mother’s nucleus but the donor’s healthy mitochondria, is now ready to be fertilized by the father’s sperm before being inserted into the uterus.

The "egg repair" three-parent IVF method
The second approach, “embryo repair,” is more complicated as it involves two embryos: one created from the egg and sperm of the intended parents, and a donor embryo created using the father’s sperm but a healthy donor egg. The nuclei of both embryos are removed, but the intended parent’s nucleus is inserted into the donor embryo while the donor nucleus is destroyed. This results in an embryo with the parents’ nucleus and the donor’s mitochondria that is then ready to be inserted into the uterus.

The “embryo repair” reproach is undeniably immoral from a pro-life perspective because it involves the destruction of an embryo, a new human life. Furthermore, the destroyed embryo was created solely for the purpose of creating a healthy embryo; do the ends justify the means? While the “egg repair” method is certainly controversial too, it does not require the destruction of embryos and could be considered an acceptable moral option if appropriate protocol is implemented. Caution must be taken, however; if typical IVF protocol is followed in order to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy, then several embryos could be created while only some are implanted, leaving the rest to be discarded, frozen indefinitely (with few being adopted), or donated to science.

Moreover, while the destruction of human embryos is the main area of concern from a pro-life standpoint, other ethical concerns are worth mentioning, including the potential slippery slope towards “designer babies” and eugenics. To be clear, only about 0.1% of the child’s DNA would be from the donor woman’s mitochondria, and it would not affect traits such as personality or physical appearance, which originate from nuclear DNA. But despite this small percentage, it is still a permanent change in DNA which would then be passed down to subsequent generations through the female line, a fact that has some bioethicists concerned due to the lack of research on the outcomes. 

A precedent has undoubtedly been set with the UK’s approval of this technology. Mitochondrial donation methods were banned in the US at the turn of the millennium during controversy over trials that used a similar cytoplasmic transfer technique (read the scientific publication here), but this issue will surely resurface as the process in the UK continues. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Institute of Medicine have recently been holding meetings to discuss the ethical issues brought up by mitochondrial donation techniques.

While I understand and appreciate that this IVF procedure has many potential benefits, extreme caution must be taken to avoid the destruction of human life in the quest to create human life free of debilitating diseases. I would encourage my fellow pro-lifers to also question the ethics of current mitochondrial donation methods (particularly the “embryo repair” method), and to make our voices heard: methods involving the destruction of human embryos are immoral, even if they do result in a healthy embryo. We must ask ourselves just how far we will go to achieve our ends.

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