The headline above is borrowed verbatim from a Feb. 6 Scientific American article (coverage here) after the House of Commons voted by 75 percent to make Britain the first nation to legalize “three-parent babies.” The House of Lords gave the final approval Feb. 24. Newcastle University researchers are already paying women to be genetic donors, and the first such births are expected next year.
The hope here is to avoid babies with devastating “mitochondrial” birth defects and related ailments like muscular dystrophy. So these experiments have the best of motives, though scientists and theologians alike question the means. Reporters should note good online coverage of pros and cons by Sarah Knapton in the London Telegraph.
News media take note: The U.S. debate will gain prominence with a March 31 – April 1 “public workshop” in Washington by the panel that’s advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Institute of Medicine on this. Its delightfully bureaucratic name: “Committee on Ethical and Social Policy Considerations of Novel Techniques for Prevention of Maternal Transmission of Mitochondrial DNA Diseases.” (Contact: Michael Berrios, MBerrios@nas.edu or MitoEthics@nas.edu). A good story, though no go-ahead from the FDA or Congress is likely in the immediate future.
The science: A mother passes on two types of DNA to a child. These problems come with defective mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). In “mitochondrial replacement,” the nucleus from a mother’s egg will replace the nucleus of an egg taken from a female donor who carries no mtDNA defect. The artificial egg will then be fertilized by a father’s sperm using in vitro fertilization (IVF), also pioneered in Britain in 1978. The resulting child will inherit genetic material from two biological mothers and one father.
Long after ISIS and “Fifty Shades” are forgotten blemishes on civilization, this 2015 action may be remembered as a moral landmark. Jamie Metzl of the Atlantic Council is enthusiastic: “After roughly 4 billion years of evolution by natural selection we are on the verge of taking active control of our evolutionary process.” But given public wariness about “genetically modified” vegetables, there’s bound to be fierce fdebate over human “designer babies.”
There are two types of objections. The Catholic Church and other traditionalists have long opposed any artificial human reproduction, including IVF, and also any such research that destroys human embryos. The Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of Philadelphia’s National Catholic Bioethics Center believes that “both sperm and egg uniquely express and embody our individuality, our identity.” Similarly, British M.P. Jacob Rees Mogg says the new mtDNA technique “it is not a cure for disease; it is the creating of a different person.”
Others are not opposed in principle but think such births are being rushed without adequate peer-reviewed research on the risks. So say some important figures in British science and a last-minute appeal from the Church of England, which said passage of the February bill would be “irresponsible.” Critics contend that such genetic manipulation raises potential danger of sterility, premature aging, developmental disabilities, and cancer.