Now that it’s possible to create a baby with three genetic “parents,” some people are sounding alarm bells. Will it pose a risk to our species? Will it destroy human dignity? Politicians in Europe are asking these questions after the UK recently green-lighted the procedure, becoming the first place in the world to do so.
“Three-parent babies could risk the future of the human race, warn 55 Italian MPs” was the ominous story headline of the February 21, 2015 story in UK newspaper The Express. Three-parent babies could “modify genetic heritage in an irreversible way,” they said in an open letter to The Times of London. There could be “uncontrollable and unforeseeable consequences” which might affect future generations, and “inevitably affect the human species as a whole.”
Additional criticism came from 50 members of the European Parliament, who wrote to UK Prime Minster David Cameron claiming that creating three-parent babies breaches European Union law. “It violates the fundamental standards of human dignity and integrity of the person,” said the letter. “Modification of the genome is unethical and cannot be permitted. These proposals put the UK out in front of a race to the bottom so far as standards of human dignity are concerned.”
The purpose of the procedure is to prevent serious, incurable, and sometimes fatal mitochondrial diseases in the baby, such as blindness, cognitive impairment, and muscular dystrophy. Mitochondrial disease comes from the fact that although the intended mother’s egg has a good nucleus, the material surrounding the nucleus is not so good. To fix it, a donor egg that doesn’t have this problem is obtained, and its nucleus is replaced with the nucleus of the intended mother’s egg.
To call the donor in this scenario a “second mother,” and to say the baby has “three parents,” is somewhat misleading, given that only a tiny bit of the donor’s DNA comes into play — it ends up being less than 0.054 percent of the total. Plus, it’s merely mitochondrial DNA, existing in the material the nucleus floats in — it’s not nuclear DNA, which determines personal characteristics and traits such as height, temperament, hair and eye colour.
Nevertheless, some people are worried that even the smallest tinkering with genes could cause big problems. Arguments for and against the procedure were recently set out in The Telegraph: Experts against it say mitochondrial DNA can affect personality. Even though there is only a tiny little bit in play, who knows what it could do? There might be a greater risk of cancer and premature aging in “three-parent” babies, who would need to be monitored all their lives. And if indeed something genetically horrible were created, the bad code could be passed onto future generations. Plus, some say the procedure could be a “slippery slope” towards designer babies, which many oppose.
Experts in favour of the procedure emphasize that it will allow mothers who carry faulty mitochondria to have healthy children, free from devastating, and often deadly, conditions. They also emphasize that mitochondrial DNA represents less than 0.054 per cent of the total DNA, and it does not affect personality or appearance. Plus, the procedure will be appropriately regulated.
At the end of the day it seems the scientific community is largely on board, according to a spokesperson for the Wellcome Trust, a charity that supports much of the research into mitochondrial donation. She told The Express that 40 of the world’s leading scientists and ethicists in the field, from 14 different countries, have repeatedly urged the UK to allow the technique. Plus, an expert group, including five Nobel laureates, have written to The Times to express their support. In any event, the procedure has won approval of the UK Parliament, so – subject to final scrutiny of the House of Lords – it’s a go.
Bill Rogers is a Toronto lawyer and blogger covering family law and fertility law issues, and a columnist for the Medical Post covering the law of malpractice.