Officials in the United Kingdom have granted permission to a fertility clinic to use a highly controversial procedure whereby a human baby is made using genetic material from three parents. The stated purpose is to prevent mothers with mitochondrial diseases from passing them on to their children, though it has raised fears about creating “designer babies.”
The issue of three-parent embryos has been fiercely debated in the U.K. for the past several years. Since 2014, when the first parliamentary inquiry into “mitochondrial replacement therapy” (or the creation of three-parent embryos) occurred until December 2016, when the British government finally sanctioned the procedure, the ethical and the scientific implications of such an act have been called into question by the public, the press, and the medical community alike.
However, this past week, the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority announced the procedure will be put into use for the first time at a clinic in Newcastle University. “I can confirm today that the HFEA has approved the first application by Newcastle Fertility at Life for the use of mitochondrial donation to treat patients,” stated Sally Cheshire, the Authority’s chair at the organization’s annual conference. “Patients will now be able to apply individually to the HFEA to undergo mitochondrial donation treatment at Newcastle, which will be life-changing for them, as they seek to avoid passing on serious genetic diseases to future generations.”
The desire to use scientific discovery to enrich human knowledge is noble. However, this procedure raises serious and profound ethical concerns. For one, even the phrase is misleading, as the technique involves “nuclear transfer” (a.k.a. cloning), and not transfer or donation of mitochondria. And in their effort to create an embryo free from potential hereditary mitochondrial defects, scientists have developed a procedure that destroys two human embryos to produce one healthy embryo. In this technique called “pro-nuclear transfer,” the father’s sperm is used to fertilize the mother’s egg, which contains the defective mitochondria, creating one embryo. At the same time, a second egg from a donor, which contains healthy mitochondria, is also fertilized, producing another embryo. The nuclei from both embryos are removed, destroying these entities. The nucleus from the embryo with the defective mitochondrial DNA is then transferred into the embryo “shell” with the healthy mitochondrial DNA. The result is a third embryo, which contains genetic material from two mothers and one father.
In addition to that very serious concern, is the ethical precedent that this sets for the scientific community as a whole. Nuclear transfer procedures constitute germline modification. Germline modification crosses an ethical line long held by the international scientific community. While it is commonly held that genetic engineering tools may be used on patients for their own medical conditions, it has been understood that they should not be used to modify embryos as this not only alters the traits of those existing individuals but also alters any future children.
In January, the second baby (and first girl) was born as a result of these nuclear transfer techniques in Ukraine. Previously, researchers had recommended the procedures only for male embryos as they are less likely to pass on these genetic modifications. “We are accelerating down a slippery slope now when we are going to manufacture children in the laboratory to specific genetic characteristics,” David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute stated at the time.
The consequences of this sort of genetic engineering are unclear and the victims are, as yet, unknown. Scientific advancement must not come at the expense of ethics or of humanity. This procedure allows for the creation, even manufacture, of human life simply to destroy it. It suggests that those with disabilities must be sifted out of the human race. It should be hoped that, despite the unfortunate launch of these procedures in the U.K., people will continue to speak out against such practices and that, in the U.S., we will do our utmost to see them permanently banned.
Nora Sullivan is Research Director at the Life Institute in Dublin, Ireland and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. Nora has extensive experience in pro-life research and policy work and received her Master’s in Public Affairs from University College Dublin.