December 13, 2017

The Ethical Challenges Presented by “Three-Parent Babies”

Don Johnson

I follow a scientific website for news and insights into our ever-changing world. At a minimum, I find that I can pick up interesting illustrations from time to time. Recently, I came across a news item about something called “three-parent babies.” A bit of searching on the internet led me to a new development in reproductive sciences that presents real challenges to our ethics and even to our theology. There are aspects of this story that go beyond my ability of comprehension and application, but as a Christian preacher I think I am bound to consider how this “brave new world” affects me and those whom God has given me to serve.

What are Three-Parent Babies?

As I understand it, a “three parent baby” is one that develops from its father’s sperm, the nucleus of its mother’s egg and a “donor egg” that comes from another woman. The reason for this procedure is “defective mitochondrial DNA” in the cells of the mother. I am sure most readers are familiar with DNA, the genetic code residing in every cell of our bodies that determines our physical characteristics. The programing of our DNA affects our hair color, eye color, height, athletic abilities (or not), and every other physical characteristic we have. Most of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells, originally formed when the DNA from our fathers and mothers combined at the moment of conception, creating the unique embryo that we once were.

Note that I said “most” of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells. There are smaller “thingies”[1] in our cells called mitochondria. The mitochondria also contain DNA, a small percentage of our total DNA, but sometimes very significant to the life and health of the individual. Some women have defective mitochondrial DNA which can result in mitochondrial disease, putting any offspring by that mother at risk of mitochondrial disease. (I should note here that mitochondrial DNA is passed on from generation to generation only from the mother, the sperm contributes none of this material.)

“Mitochondrial disease is a genetic condition which can cause serious problems including muscular dystrophy and heart disease. It is passed from mother to child and is truly horrible.”[2] In the case of a baby born recently (April 2016), the mother’s defective genes have resulted in heartbreak with two previous pregnancies. “The baby’s mother carries genes for Leigh syndrome, a disorder that affects the developing nervous system, and was responsible for the deaths of her first two children.”[3]

Mitochondrial disease is very rare. “Relevant mutations are found in about 0.5% of the population and disease affects around one in 5000 individuals (0.02%) — the percentage of people affected is much smaller because cells contain many mitochondria, only some of which carry mutations, and the number of mutated mitochondria need to reach a threshold in order to affect the entire cell, and many cells need to be affected for the person to show disease.”[4] “The average number of births per year among women at risk for transmitting mtDNA disease is estimated to approximately 150 in the United Kingdom and 800 in the United States.”[5] This represents one in 10,000 births.[6]

The procedure that is followed (by my understanding) is that scientists take a donor egg, strip it of its nucleus (containing 95% of its DNA) and then take a nucleus from the mother’s egg and inject it into the donor cell. The cell is then fertilized by the father’s sperm (in a laboratory) and a resulting embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb. In this procedure, inevitably some mitochondria “hitch a ride” along with the mother’s nucleus, but it is thought that the result is insignificant for the resulting child. (Note: it is thought that this is so, but it is not known.) It is believed that “no symptoms will occur if fewer than about 20% of mitochondrial DNA are faulty.” In the case of the recent baby, examination of cells from various bodily tissues suggests an average of only 1.6% faulty DNA in the baby.[7]

Currently, the procedure is banned in the USA and many other countries. In December, the United Kingdom approved it.[8] The procedure for the baby born in April was performed in Mexico, where there “are no rules.”[9]

What does this mean for the Biblical concept of personhood, the nature of human life, and Biblical ethics?

Unsurprisingly, reactions to this news among various observers is decidedly mixed. There are many who applaud the results and have no question at all about the ethics of the procedure. Others are more cautious, including some who look at this outside a Christian world-view.

The arguments of those for the procedure are these:

  1. Since the procedure prevents (in theory) children coming into the world with horrible and life-threatening conditions, it is perfectly all right.
  2. If the women involved are fully informed of the risks of the procedure and give their consent, they should be allowed to make the choice.
  3. Safety and efficacy are the only concerns. “The FDA is supposed to decide on whether to approve therapies based on their safety and efficacy. That should be sufficient: If a treatment is safe and it works, why should the agency stop physicians and patients from using it?”[10] In other words, pragmatism rules!

There may be more arguments for the procedure, these are gleaned from the reason.com article cited in the footnote above. It is admittedly an opinion article, not a bio-ethics paper.

Those opposed to the procedure argue thus:

  1. “If legalised this takes us across a massive ethical threshold. It allows the design and manufacture of a human being with certain properties and to that extent constitutes a ‘designer baby’.” (Currently, the regulations require scientists to only implant male embryos to eliminate the risk of passing on any defective mitochondrial DNA to subsequent generations. While not a ‘designer baby,’ exactly, the result is at least a ‘sex-selective baby.’)
  2. Once the line of ‘sex-selection’ is crossed, what will stop advocates from pushing for selecting other characteristics like hair or eye color and the like? (Some will dismiss this as a ‘slipper-slope’ argument, but there are slippery slopes in this world.)
  3. Babies become commodities where those wealthy enough can produce the result they want.
  4. The procedure may not even be effective. Initial research showed that “one in five stem cell lines derived from the embryos they created showed an increase in the mitochondria DNA carried over.” Note here the plural “embryos.”
  5. The procedure is a “need” for only a very small percentage of the population – should governments rush to approve a procedure that benefits very few in light of many ethical questions?
  6. No one really knows what effect the experimentation will have on the life-long development of the resultant children. Should we be experimenting with humans in this way?

These points are derived from 3-Parent Babies: Unethical, Unproven, Dangerous And Unnecessary | Christian News on Christian Today.

To the “no one really knows” point, one doctor says, ““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.”[11] Other arguments against from the same source follow the same line of reasoning.

On the one hand, it is easy to sympathize with parents who have had the misfortune of losing children to a genetic condition with the likelihood that every child they produce will suffer the same fate. It is also true that manipulation of the nucleus of the mother into the cell of the donor in itself seems to be a non-issue from a biblical standpoint — if life begins at conception, then manipulation of the egg(s) is not yet conception, so we are not dealing with a living being at that point, are we?

Yes, but, did you notice some key points I commented on above? Currently only male embryos are allowed to be implanted in the womb. I am not sure how one tells (!!) but apparently scientists know how to do this. This begs the question: are only male embryos produced in the procedure? Surely not. No doubt there are female embryos as well.

The second key point is the plural “embryos.” In this procedure, multiple embryos are created to ensure the success of one. What happens to the unused embryos? What happens, as we noted above, to the female embryos?

If life begins at conception, and I think it does, then who are we to decide which child lives and which dies? Are not each of these embryos human beings who belong to God? Who are we to treat human life as a commodity to provide those who can afford it with a “disease-free” baby?

Conclusion

We rejoice at the news of new human life coming into our families and churches. We bear the burdens of couples who have suffered the loss of little children. In some cases, couples have no children at all and have had numerous disappointments due to genetic defects they suffer. This is a tragic consequence of the fall, as creation groans in our current state, awaiting the redemption. (Rm 8.22)

We all, whether parents of children, or childless, must learn to walk with our trust in the Lord. We are driven by the Creation Mandate to desire children, but our times are not in our hands, and we must derive our satisfaction in life form the Lord. We hope in God, not in having kids. Christians must learn to gain their sense of worth and satisfaction in knowing God and being known by Him.

When we consider the wonders of technical advance, we marvel at the skill, but we have to question any procedure that treats precious human life as a commodity to be used or discarded as unnecessary by-products at the whim of human arbiter.


Resources consulted:

TheScientist.com: First MRT Baby Born

TheScientist.com: PubPeer, CRISPR, Three-Parent IVF, and Theranos

telegraph.co.uk: Three-parent babies: the arguments for and against

Nature.com: ‘Three-parent baby’ claim raises hopes — and ethical concerns

Wikipedia: Mitochondrial replacement therapy

premierchristianity.com: Three-parent babies isn’t progress. If you play God you’ll create hell on earth

reason.com: Of Course It’s Ethical To Make ‘Three-Parent’ Babies

ChristianToday.com: 3-Parent Babies: Unethical, Unproven, Dangerous And Unnecessary

ITV.com: ‘Three-parent babies’ explained


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. note the highly technical language! []
  2. 3-Parent Babies: Unethical, Unproven, Dangerous And Unnecessary []
  3. ‘Three-parent babies’ explained []
  4. Mitochondrial replacement therapy – Wikipedia []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. ‘Three-parent babies’ explained []
  7. ‘Three-parent baby’ claim raises hopes — and ethical concerns. []
  8. http://www.itv.com/news/2016-12-15/three-parent-baby-treatment-given-green-light-by-fertility-regulator/ []
  9. ‘Three-parent baby’ claim raises hopes — and ethical concerns. []
  10. Of Course It’s Ethical To Make ‘Three-Parent’ Babies. []
  11. Three-parent babies: the arguments for and against []


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