The Story: The United Kingdom may soon become the first country to allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people, after the government backed the in vitro fertilization (IVF) technique.
The Background: The new IVF technique adds DNA from a third-party donor in order to eliminate debilitating and potentially fatal mitochondrial diseases that are passed on from mother to child. Defective mitochondria, which affects one in every 6,500 babies, can leave babies starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure, and, in the most extreme cases, death. Approximately 10 couples a year in the UK would benefit from the treatment if it is made legal.
The result is a baby with genetic information from three people.
Why It Matters: The innovation and its acceptance combine two of the most troubling bioethical issues related to IVF. The creation of three-parent embryos and “designer babies” are each troubling. But to combine them is a significant leap forward into dehumanizing eugenics.
Eugenics is the practices of improving the genetic composition of a population by increasing the number of people who have a more desired trait and reducing those with less desirable traits. Currently, our most common eugenics practice is to screen for children who may have Down syndrome and then kill them before they are born. It is estimated that upward of 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are aborted.
Increasingly, though, IVF techniques are being created that allow certain genetic traits to be eliminated or selected from an embryo before they are implanted. This in itself is not morally problematic, so long as no embryos are being destroyed. But in bioethics the line between therapy (preventing or curing diseases) and enhancement (improving capabilities not related to disease) is often blurred.
Even when such distinctions can be made, our culture of unfettered personal choice makes it nearly impossible to say that certain “enhancements” should not be made. If we allow genetic changes to prevent mitochondrial disease, why should we not allow such changes to make sure a child is born with blue eyes, blonde hair, and a fair complexion?
Added to this concern is the problem of allowing three genetic “parents.” Since the creation of IVF in 1978 we’ve been able to sever sex from procreation; now we are able to sever parenthood from procreation. By mixing in some genetic material, anyone can be added to the “parental line” of a child. A polygamist family could have any number of genetic fathers and mothers. Who then would be legally entitled to be claimed as the “parents”? If current legal trends hold, the answer would be “all of them.”
Christians should attempt to do what we can to hold the line against techniques that degrade our humanity. But as long as “what can be done, must be done” is the only ethic our culture acknowledges, we may not be able to stop this immoral advance. We have entered a Brave New World that we are unprepared for—legally, political, ethically, and culturally—and from which we may not be able to turn back.