Another look at the potential for three-parent babies

Members of England's Parliament passed legislation on Feb. 3 that allows the use of DNA from a third-party female donor to be used in a human embryo -- a new move toward eliminating genetic disease.

The technique could help babies with mitochondrial disease, which affects one in every 6,500 babies and can be fatal. Mitochondria, found in nearly all of the body's cells, converts food into usable energy and contains DNA that does not affect other personal traits (such as appearance). When defective, it can lead to brain damage, heart failure, blindness and muscle wasting.

The process would replace the harmful material in a woman's egg prior to conception, mixing the DNA of the two parents with a donor woman's healthy mitochondria.

This procedure, however, raises a number of ethical issues and objections, as it involves experimentation with human reproduction and requires in vitro fertilization, the church's "default" argument against the technique, wrote Jack Mahoney for The Tablet.

But the church also once opposed organ transplants for requiring "self-mutilation," Mahoney noted. "Few people would now accept that extremely partial analysis as an adequate description of what many rightly view as an act of human solidarity," he wrote.

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The distinction between genetic transplants and a "genetic apocalypse" likens in positive or negative genetic medicine. "It need not be the case that the wish to prevent an individual, or even the human gene pool, from suffering a particular genetic malady will inevitably usher humanity into Aldous Huxley's Brave New World," Mahoney wrote, referring to a 1932 novel about reproductive technology.

Negative, or preventive, genetic medicine aims to eliminate deficiencies or diseases in an individual or possibly for generations to come. Positive genetic medicine, or genetic enhancement, aspires to improve individuals by adding genes based on preferences, making the individual more personally or socially advantageous. When geared for the individual's sake, it is "somatic therapy," whereas "germ line therapy" refers to the introduction of genetic changes in the reproductive system that will eventually continue through succeeding generations.

But the uneasiness around substituting various genes, Mahoney said, implies "the view that humans are simply the product of their genes, now including someone else's, and that their personality and behaviour are determined by their genetic make-up, leaving little, if any, room for personal freedom of choice and self-determination on the part of the individual."

Consider how external factors -- environmental, economic, and the unconscious -- affect human behavior. "Being predisposed is not the same as being predetermined," Mahoney wrote.

"We are each much more than a mere kaleidoscope of genes."

It is not uncommon to hear that such interference with genetics and reproduction is "playing God." But to use God-given intelligence in pursuit of caring for God's creature is not to rival him; rather, "we are accepting the divine invitation," Mahoney wrote.

The Second Vatican Council apostolic constitution Gaudium et Spes summarizes how God's power unites with human potential:

Far from thinking that works produced by humanity's own talent and energy are in opposition to God's power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the flowering of God's own mysterious design.

Should England's House of Lords approve the bill, the first "three-person" baby could be born next year.

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]


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