Article Oct 12, 2016

Three-genetic-parent babies: More than a slippery slope

Recently, it was announced that a controversial technique that uses the DNA from three persons has resulted in the first birth of a child.[1] The birth of the baby boy occurred five months ago, yet scientists are just now publicizing their success. For embryology, this is truly groundbreaking in the sense that it has never been done before.[2] However, for those ascribing to a Christian worldview, many questions persist.

What was done?

In this particular case, the Jordanian couple approached the U.S.-based team who performed the procedure after experiencing the death of two children. The mother is a carrier for Leigh syndrome, a disorder that affects the central nervous system and is typically fatal within the first three years of life. After consultation with the medical team, it was decided that a technique known as spindle nuclear transfer would be utilized. The physician, Dr. John Zhang, of the New Hope Fertility Center in NYC, first removed the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that had had its own nucleus removed. This resulting egg (which had the nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a donor) was then fertilized with the father’s sperm, resulting in three unique DNA contributions for the child.

It is important to note that this technique has only been approved by the UK Parliament, which permitted the technology in early 2015.[3] The U.S.-based team had to travel to Mexico to actually perform the procedure in order to evade FDA oversight and capitalize on loose regulations south of the border.

What are the problems?

Pragmatically, such legal restrictions are in place for good reason, for there are too many unanswered ethical and medical questions. It is simply not readily known what type of adverse effects such a procedure may have on progeny. Recent research has suggested that mitochondrial DNA plays a role in some personality traits.[4] Hence, vital traits will no longer be inherited by only two parents, but rather three, which is completely novel for human beings.

During the UK debates on this technology, Dr. Trevor Stammers, programme director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary's University of London, stated: “Even if these babies are born they will have to be monitored all their lives, and their children will have to be as well. We do not yet know the interaction between the mitochondria and nuclear DNA. To say that it is the same as changing a battery is facile. It’s an extremely complex thing.”

Further, Dr. Rhiannon Lloyd from the Zoological Society of London similarly cautioned that in more than 50 percent of animal studies, faulty mitochondrial DNA was transferred over during the procedure. Moreover, in March 2014, the chair of the FDA’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee, looking into the issue of mitochondrial DNA transfer wrote to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (part of the UK’s Department of Health) to warn that their panel had decided the science of mitochondrial donation was not safe.[5] Hence, from a safety and public health perspective, there is simply not enough evidence to show that such procedures are safe. It is imprudent to trod down a road of uncertainty when the stakes are as high as this. As one commentator put it, this is science by press release.[6]

However, even if the safety of the procedure for the resulting children could be guaranteed, there remain many theological considerations for reproductive technologies in general, and three-genetic-parent embryos, in particular. The issue of human dignity must be at the forefront of this discussion. Human beings are not engineered creations to be tinkered with for the sake of novelty and innovation. Human beings, who bear the image of the Creator God, are good gifts to be received, rather than objects to be produced. The production of three-genetic-parent children points to a minimization of the sacredness of the human creation as unique gifts from God. As Albert Mohler has pointed out, once we see children as objects to be customized, ordered and configured to our liking and specifications, this changes the inherent relationship between a parent and child. This also has the ability of altering our thinking of what it means to be human.[7]

We must realistically note that one advance in technology inevitably leads to others. Once a technology like this becomes publicized and available, then it naturally leads to a widening of the application, and additional questionable biomedical activities and technologies are sure to follow. Once a society recognizes the moral worth of one genetic technology, then it predictably leads to the moral acceptance of other technologies. This is not so much a slippery slope argument as it is a statement based upon past history. Once this doorway is opened, further experimentation in the realm of designer children will not be far removed.

Let’s be clear: The desire for children is a good desire. There is a clear pattern throughout Scripture of God desiring for people to have children (Gen. 1:28) and for children being a blessing to their parents (Ps. 127:3-5). As churches and Christians, we must show compassion and tenderness toward those who have suffered infertility and disorders that have prevented the natural bearing of healthy children. Surely this is the result of a world gone awry by the effects of sin. However, the pursuit of children by any and every means is not something we should applaud, for it sets dangerous precedents from which it is difficult to backpedal.