Three-parent babies... because it's all about the children, right?

The UK House of Commons this week passed legislation to approve the creation of three-parent babies. The bill still needs to go through the House of Lords but it appears it will go through, paving the way for the first three-parent baby to be born next year.

Immediately, there have been calls for similar legislation to be passed in Australia, so it is important we are aware of the issues.

Why make a three-parent baby?

A brief explanation of the science is necessary for this.

Usually, the nucleus of an unfertilised egg contains 23 chromosomes, and a fertilised egg contains 46 chromosomes – this is usually what we think about when we hear people speak of DNA.

However, the part of the egg surrounding the nucleus contains mitochondria, which hold a small proportion (less than 1% of the total) of DNA as well. Aberrations in this “mitochondrial DNA” can cause certain mitochondrial-linked diseases.

It is these diseases which are trying to be avoided by using “donor” mitochondrial DNA.

How do you make a three-parent baby?

There were two techniques proposed, and explanations of each are conveniently located in the explanatory memorandum for the legislation itself.

Maternal spindle transfer

The “maternal spindle” is the group of maternal chromosomes within an egg, which contain nuclear DNA and are shaped in a spindle. MST involves removing the spindle from the mother’s egg before it is fertilised by the father’s sperm. The spindle is then placed into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria (from which the donor’s spindle, and therefore her nuclear material, has been removed).

Pro-nuclear transfer

The pro-nucleus is the nucleus of a sperm or an egg cell during the process of fertilisation after the sperm enters the egg, but before they fuse. PNT involves removing the pronuclei (nuclear material) from a newly fertilised egg that has unhealthy mitochondria. The pro-nuclei are then transferred into a donated embryo, with healthy mitochondria, that has had its own, original pro-nuclei removed.

What are the moral challenges presented by this?

Sanctity of marriage

Each of the proposed methods undermines marriage in the same way as other in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques, including the separation of the unitive and procreative sexual acts, and the method of obtaining gametes.

Sanctity of life

Like other IVF techniques, the creation of life in this way involves the elevation of risk to embryos, and the usual practise of creating (and then freezing) more embryos than are intended for life.

What makes this different, though, is that pro-nuclear transfer involves the deliberate destruction of a viable embryo so that another might “live”. And it is the pro-nuclear transfer which is the most likely technique to be used following the passage of this legislation.

The eugenics element

The techniques being used here are not curing anything; they are simply ensuring that babies with a predisposition to mitochondrial disease are just not born. There are more elements of eugenics than there are of healing in this research.

The baby will have three genetic parents

While only a very small percentage of the baby’s DNA will come from the woman who donated the other fertilised egg, the baby will indeed have three genetic parents.

The long-term effects of this type of alteration in the human germ line are unknown, and there is speculation that such a change could affect all future generations.

And then there are the effects on the individual child. No one can definitively say that this will not affect the child either physically or emotionally. But even if it did not, the legal implications alone are significant. The door is open for three people to validly have a “claim” on the child.

And the notion of a “claim” on the child brings us neatly to the next round of problems with this approval.

Because it’s all about the children... except for the bit that is about the parents...

One of the issues not really discussed in reports about this legislation is that the couples could use a donor egg to avoid potential mitochondrial disease. It would still involve all of the other unresolved ethical issues which exist in common IVF procedures, but the child would not be genetically related to the mother.

The reason for a three-parent child is to ensure that one of those parents is the woman who intends to be the mother of the child.

... and the other bit that is about medical professionals

The explanatory memorandum says that researchers estimate 10-20 families per year might be helped with this technology, rising to around 80 families once the technology is well established.

80 families at a maximum, but most likely a quarter of that. Don’t get me wrong, every family is important and I do not underestimate the pain each of these families must experience by not being able to have biological children of their own, but this does seem to be a solution in search of a problem.

Three-parent babies are unchartered scientific territory because the creation of such embryos has been illegal up until now. Now the problem of mitochondrial disease has been used to justify the use of this technology, it is possible that it will be used in the future for non-therapeutic reasons.

This is not a “slippery slope” argument, but merely an acknowledgment that there is a country somewhere which will allow this in order to encourage reproductive tourism, which is increasingly lucrative.

It may be too late to stop this happening in the United Kingdom, but we can do our best to ensure Australia does not follow suit.

Monica Doumit, Catholic Talk contributor

Thursday, 05 February 2015 05:25 Written by 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.