Members of Parliament in England are set to vote to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 to allow for three parent babies. If they do, England will become the first country to allow the creation of "three-parent babies". Many voices from the scientific community are urging a yes vote, but the issue is not without its detractors. Opponents insist the technology is not ready. This is about mitochondrial replacement. Originally conceived as a means to prevent diseases caused by mutations in the mitochondria, the technique uses donor mitochondria to replace the faulty ones. The "three-parent" short hand is from the fact that because mitochondria have their own genomes, the child ends up with genes from three people.
Proponents argue the name is not only misleading but inflammatory: mitochondria and their genomes are purely functional, limited to producing energy and exerting no influence on appearance, personality, intelligence or other human attributes that we value. Some in the scientific community believe we may have seriously underestimated the influence that mitochondria have. New research suggests that they play a far greater role in some of the most important features of human life than first thought.
The whole issue raises an ethically troubling prospect – that children conceived in this way will inherit vital traits from three parents. In August 1996, at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., a 39-year-old mechanical engineer from Pittsburgh became pregnant after trying for almost seven years to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization. She agreed to a very experimental procedure in which doctors extracted her eggs, slid a needle into them, injected her husband’s sperm, and also included a small amount of cytoplasm from another woman’s egg to assist the viability of the conception. What some have hailed as the next advance in the rapidly changing world of reproductive technology, some have deemed the root of an exciting medical advance and others say is the beginning of the end of the human species.
A year ago, US health officials began weighing the approval of limited trials of this technique using DNA from three people in an attempt to prevent illnesses like muscular dystrophy and respiratory problems. The proposed treatment would allow a woman to have a baby without passing on diseases of the mitochondria, the "powerhouses" that drive cells. Some are warning the procedure is "not without its risks, but others insist it's treating a disease. Preventing a disease that can be passed down for generations would be ethical as long as it is safe.
Once more we face a challenge in which the seeming benefits of such an advance in technology seem hard to deny yet there is a lingering fear among most Christians that this is not simply a treatment for disease but represents one more attempt to manipulate and control the process of conception and to treat the issue of life's beginning (middle and ending) as something best left to the experts and not something subject to the ordinary constraints of morality. In other words, if we can do it and we promise to do it well, who can disagree? The water over the dam of technology running ahead of our morality is well attested in modern society. What is curiously unique is that at the same time we seem to be working to make it possible for the infertile to conceive and those prone to genetic illness to conceive without passing down the disease, we are also marching further and further ahead on the routine and ethically neutral ending the life of the unborn, physician assisted suicide of young and old, and the compassionate ending of the life of those who consume too much of our health care budget or whose lives are no longer deemed "worth living" by those who sit in judgment over us. What a convoluted and soiled trail of logic and a perverted use of our technological ability. God must save us from ourselves even before He must rescue us from the devil. Kyrie eleison.
Potential problems with mitochondrial replacement (MR), which were discussed by Klaus Reinhardt in his 2013 Science paper, "Mitochondrial Replacement, Evolution, and the Clinic" (no subscription required) and listed in Reinhardt's table. From the paper:
"Studies on model organisms, ranging from mice to fruit fl ies, indicate that MR can profoundly change the expression profiles of nuclear genes and affect a range of important traits such as individual development, cognitive behavior, and key health parameters. These studies also suggest that males of reproductive age are particularly sensitive to MR-induced effects.
"Natural genetic differences in the mtDNA sequence exist from one individual to another, broadly denoted as mtDNA haplotypes. Putatively healthy mitochondrial haplotypes differ in their effect on the expression of key health and performance parameters. In particular, energy production critically hinges on extensive cross-talk between genes dispersed across the nucleus and the mitochondria (12)....
"Two points may deserve careful consideration prior to any change in legislation. First, studies in humans have only tracked health through to the blastocyst stage and in macaques to 3 years of age (see the table). The results from mice and invertebrates suggest that many deleterious effects of MR would not be revealed until adulthood....
"Second, the possibility that MR outcomes may be improved by matching mtDNA haplotypes of donor and recipient (10) warrants experimental attention."
Subsequently the U.K. Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority issued a statement on Reinhardt's paper.
In a February 24, 2014, article about "Disease-Free Designer Babies", it is noted:
"From 1997 to 2003, about 30 children worldwide were born using a method that injected donor mitochondria DNA into eggs after they were fertilized. The first baby born with this technique was reported in 1997. In 2003, though, the FDA told fertility clinics that genetically manipulated embryos were considered a biological product, and subject to regulation, essentially halting the technique in humans."
An August 26, 2014, article in the UK's The Independent, "Medical dilemma of 'three-parent babies': Fertility clinic investigates health of teenagers it helped to be conceived through controversial IVF technique, reports on efforts to investigate the health of these children, including 17 infants with three biological parents who were born (or at least conceived) at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science (IRMS) at St. Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, New Jersey.
An August 31, 2014, BBC article discusses one of the three-parent children, then 13-year-old Alana Saarinen. According to her mother, Alana is a healthy, typical teenager. "I couldn't ask for a better child. She is an intelligent, beautiful girl inside and out, she loves math and science … she does really well in school. She helps me around the house… when she's not texting!"
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