How Ethical are “Three-Parent Babies”?
Mitochondria are our “power-supply”. Although they only contain 27 genes, they regulate many aspects of energy production, storage and processing. If a faulty mitochondrial gene is inherited, it can cause severe disabilities such as Leigh’s disease. Prof. Doug Turnbull’s Team in Newcastle have developed a technique in which damaged maternal mitochondrial DNA can be replaced by that from a donor with healthy mitochondria. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is to announce its decision soon on approval for human use. As with all reproductive advances there has been an outcry from ethical opponents who stigmatis it as enabling “3 parent babies”.
Prof Turnbull believes that the technique should be legalised “to offer women who carry mitochondrial DNA mutations the chance of having normal children.” The coined label of “3-parent babies” is misleading. Prof Turnbull adds that “The techniques proposed will only change the mitochondrial DNA” which makes up less than 1% of the total genetic makeup and does not transfer any identity-conferring traits such as distinctive features or family resemblances. The 3rd party is merely a progenitor, providing a reliable replacement “power supply” to eradicate the risk of severe inherited disease. “3-parent babies” is an emotive and disproportionate term that has been picked up uncritically by some tabloid media to sour public opinion on this potentially life-saving treatment.
Opponents argue that knowing they have “3 parents” could be detrimental to the child. A child might indeed be confused if their heritage was communicated in this way without context or explanation. The very notion of “3 parents” is the result of confused thinking and designed to confuse. If a child is made aware that without donated mitochondria they would have inherited a debilitating disease, I somehow doubt this would trigger an identity crisis. In fact, it is peculiar that HFEA have dignified this issue as a major problem.
Prof Turnbull added that he “agree(s) with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics that this should be allowed”, however the treatment does require strict regulation in two important aspects. Firstly, approval should only be given to select-out traits that are severely debilitating and a debate is required on what level of severity outweigh any risks associated with the treatment. Secondly, the treatment could be abused for the positive selection of conditions such as blindness or dwarfism by parents wishing children to fully share their experiences. Subject to these conditions, this is a major medical advance which should be welcomed.