Public policy researcher Dr Carys Moseley explains the ethical concerns surrounding three-parent babies
Last week, the birth of the first three-parent baby in the UK was reported in the Guardian.
Journalists obtained evidence that fewer than five such babies were born in the UK, by making Freedom of Information requests to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The first such birth in the world was in Mexico in 2016.
Radical new IVF technique
The treatment used is known as Mitochondrial Donation Treatment. The baby conceived from this treatment has a genetic father and two genetic mothers. Typically, a mother whose mitochondrial DNA is defective can choose to use this technique. The motivation for this is to prevent mothers passing on rare mitochondrial disease to their children.
The nuclear material of the mother’s fertilised egg is removed and preserved. The father’s sperm is used to fertilise the female donor’s egg (which is free from any defects). This donor nuclear material is taken out of the donor’s fertilised egg and discarded. The parents’ nuclear material is then inserted into the donor egg. The result is a bay who has more than 99% of his or her DNA from the mother and father, and a very small number of genes – around 37 – from the female donor.
Legal change in 2015 paved the way
This was all made possible by Parliament changing the law in 2015. This was despite strong principled opposition by many medical experts and politicians. Baroness Hollins, chair of the Science Committee of the British Medical Association, disagreed with allowing the procedure.
On the other hand, the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies claimed the procedure would be no different to ‘swapping a faulty car battery’. Research chemist Christopher Exley strongly criticised this analogy at the time as highly misleading, warning it had skewed the debate. He called the technique a scientific experiment not a therapy.
Newcastle clinic pioneered technique
This technique was pioneered by the Newcastle Fertility Clinic. In 2016 the Guardian reported on work by medical researchers at the clinic, who published their initial findings in the journal Nature.
However, it was admitted at the time that the technique did not eliminate the problems. It is also significant that the history of comment on this issue shows hardly any concern about the psychological and social effects has been voiced by medical researchers.
Procedure still has risks
The Guardian recently admitted that it was inevitable that a tiny number of abnormal mitochondria would be carried over from the mother’s egg to the donor’s egg during transplantation. This surely means that Dame Sally Davies was wrong to compare the procedure to ‘changing a car battery’. The Guardian cited research published this past February suggesting there is a chance these mitochondria could multiply whilst the baby is yet to be born.
Both the Guardian and the Telegraph quoted medical researchers in the UK who admitted this risk of so-called ‘reversion’ would still be present, despite the risk of mitochondrial disease being lowered.
Warnings by Christians not heeded
As the technique was being promoted in the UK, Christian organisations such as the Christian Medical Fellowship and Christian Concern raised warnings about the ethical pitfalls involved. It was hinted that prejudice could creep into the process of handling the resultant embryos. This is because it is mothers, not fathers, who pass on mitochondrial DNA to their children, thus mitochondrial diseases are passed on through mothers.
There is no way of predicting beforehand whether an IVF embryo conceived using this new technique will be male or female. The question then arises in the laboratory as to what to do with female embryos, whether they are more likely to be discarded.
‘Changing the face of the human race’
Back in 2015, Andrea Williams warned that the real issues raised by pushing for this IVF technique were moral not technical. She made the argument that it is unethical as it destroys the embryos carrying mitochondrial disease in order to create other lives.
Also, permanent genetic modifications would be passed down the genetic line when their full consequences are as yet unknown, affecting all future generations. These concerns have now been repeated by several other Christian organisations this week. Essentially the problem comes down to ‘playing God’, engaging in radical experimentation on human embryos and thus commodifying human life.