Sense and Sensitivity: “Three-Parent Babies”, Innovation or Invasion?

Considering the recent approval of three-person in-vitro fertilisation in the House of Commons, Sarah Wood battles with an ethical conundrum to ask whether this is positive medical advancement or a step towards ‘designer babies.’

The United Kingdom has become the first country to legalise three-person in-vitro fertilisation. On February 3rd the House of Commons voted 382-128 to approve a bill allowing embryo-modification techniques. Whilst this may be seen to some as a positive medical advancement with the main benefit being that it will supposedly prevent mothers from transferring incurable genetic diseases to their unborn child. I cannot help but question how dangerous this form of conception may be in terms of the ethical attitudes it may encourage, or discourage.

For example, will three-parent babies make the concept of designer babies less radical? Although the law isn’t fully set in stone yet and it will need to be approved by the UK House of Lords before eligible families can be considered, it is a scary prospect that a large amount of eggs will have to be donated and gathered by women for research. How many embryos will be destroyed for research? What are the psychological implications for the child with three parents in the future? These are all examples of questions that are being born (excuse the pun) from the anxieties of this scientific innovation, if we can call it that.

Even though decreasing the amount of babies born with severe genetic diseases is obviously a promising prospect. I think the concerns about the consequences are legitimate, and deserve more debate before the law is changed. I have concerns for the welfare of the children born from this procedure who will possibly feel as though they need to justify the morality of their birth story. With controversial issues such as this, there will always be divisions and conflicts which they will be subjected to throughout their lives as though they were a living trial. I fear that the possible anguish the term ‘three-person baby” will cause for the child is ethically wrong. In all honesty I am not yet for or against the procedure, but that is only because I feel I haven’t heard enough debate. Which is alarming. Are we living in a society that prefers using medical advancement to the preservation the moral health of society? Whilst the triple DNA technique may be remarkable for science, it may also be detrimental for the people, the human beings involved. for some couples the unnatural connotations of IVF and the scientific conception they are forced to undergo is upsetting enough.

Those that have opposed third party mitochondrial donation have been subjected to accusations that they do not want to alleviate human suffering. I think this is very unfair, opposition isn’t arising from a devious place, it has risen out of fear. The procedure is still in its experimental stages, and although incurable mitochondrial diseases could be prevented, there is still the uncertainty of other ailments this procedure could cause. Like any medical experiment, there are benefits and there are risks. The risks here are unknown, allowing those with fears and anxieties about tampering with DNA perfectly appropriate reasons to oppose or question. I am one of those people. My anxiety is for the child in question, if there have been no clinical trials of this massive procedure surely the child will have to be monitored by scientists throughout their life? They didn’t volunteer to be a human guinea pig. The procedure seems to me to be characterised by invasion.

I want to consider the ‘other side’ to this debate. Yes, there is uncertainty about the consequence and success of the procedure, and yes, perhaps the first candidates will be guinea pigs. However I ask, considering the potential benefits, should we trust science? Do we need to take a brave leap of faith and accept the risks? Whilst I do not deny that anything that could stop or prevent suffering is worth trying, I still cannot get past the ethical problems with the prospect of three-parent children. We may be able to trial an experiment that could prevent mitochondrial diseases but it doesn’t mean that we should. Call me old fashioned, but even with the benefits in mind I still return to the age old question of whether or not we should interfere so much with our own creation. Suffering has been and probably will always be a part of life, and whilst genetic disorders are undoubtedly devastating the guilt of going too far and taking such large medical risks also has the potential to be devastating. It is certainly a difficult issue to grapple with, and both sides of the argument are strong.

As we are fully immersed in the uncertain space of the “three-person baby” debate I leave you with another, but final question; if certain genetic disorders will never be eliminated through nature or evolution should we take charge of our genetic future and do what we can to eliminate the suffering ourselves?

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

If you missed Sarah Wood’s last column on embracing the process of ageing, you can find it here. You can also find all our other Features columns here.