In case you hadn’t heard, the UK just approved the creation of what people are calling “three-parent babies.” Now, where I come from, this has inevitably spawned a sermon or two about “playing god,” as well as a few horror fans imagining a new era full of bizarre roles for Benedict Cumberbatch to play.
The Guardian does a fantastic job of laying what is actually going on here, so there’s little I can do from here beyond expanding a few facts and gracing you with my own opinions.
To start, here’s the gist of the situation: the procedure that has been approved would involve replacing the mitochondrial DNA of a fertilized egg with DNA from an anonymous, female donor. This procedure would be used in cases where the biological mother has passed on defective mitochondrial DNA, which can lead to some pretty atrocious diseases in the child.
Now, to be clear, the label of “three-parent baby” is a misnomer. That’s because mitochondrial DNA doesn’t really contribute to any of the things we typically think of as being critical to our identities. All of the 23 chromosomes that usually come from your two parents will, in fact, come from two parents. This is because mitochondrial DNA comes from a different part of the cell from the other stuff, which is housed in cell nuclei.
The DNA in the mitochondria is strictly there for the sake of the mitochondria, which are there to generate usable energy for the cells of the body. That’s why errors in this DNA can still be pretty devastating. Sure, this is rare, but when it does happen, it can be horrifying. Take, for instance, Alpers Disease. This one is characterized by seizures, cerebral degeneration, blindness, and a bunch of other awful things. Or Leigh Disease, which is characterized by ataxia, breathing and eating difficulties, other stuff, and, yeah, more seizures. And, sometimes, it’s straight up lethal. One woman from Sunderland actually lost all seven of her children to mitochondrial disease.
The procedure in question can save children from developing these and other awful symptoms later in life. And, as far as anyone can tell, it’s an incredibly safe procedure. That’s not to say it isn’t without controversy. The mitochondrial DNA inserted into the egg would be passed down to future generations, and that does complicate issues of consent further down the line. The tests used to develop the procedure also involved animal testing, which is a whole can of worms on its own.
These are some valid concerns. There are also objections from the Catholic Church. Something about “diluting” parenthood. I’d be a little more concerned with diluting opportunities for healthy childhoods, but hell, maybe that’s just me. And, for those of you worried about designer babies…
Stop. See the stuff about nuclear DNA vs. Mitochondrial DNA above. This isn’t about to give you the power to make your child the next Usain Bolt.
In the end, I’d say the benefits from this technology far outweigh the costs. This isn’t tampering with our humanity any more than vaccination, really. It’s outfitting the bodies of our children with healthy parts that, short of debilitating genetic errors, they would have anyway. So none of that “slippery slope” nonsense. Save that for the “Two-Father babies,” which, incidentally, I also think will be totally awesome.