Three parent embryos – an unholy Trinity

A little late in posting this – taken from the Catholic Universe dated Sunday July 7


The news that the UK looks set to become the first country to allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people, has caused many of us to instinctively shudder with horror and not simply because of the obvious contravention to Catholic ethics.

The concerns about this new technology go way beyond the creation of human life in a laboratory, which infringes a child’s right to be ‘the fruit of the specific act of conjugal love of his parents’ (CC2378). The mooted technique aims to eliminate mitochondrial disease, an inherited genetic conditions that occurs due to mutations found in the mother’s DNA. Whereas most DNA is located inside the nucleus of a woman’s egg, mitochondria is found in the surrounding material, hence the therapy aims to transplant the healthy nucleus from the egg of a woman with mitochondrial abnormalities into that of a second woman who is unaffected, or alternatively transplant the nucleus of an already fertilised embryo, into another. In both cases, the existing nucleus will have been removed, but in the case of transplanting cells from fertilised embryos, it will entail the destruction of two human lives, in order to create a third.

This wholesale discarding of human life is an issue that is frequently overlooked when discussing IVF treatment. According to statistics released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in December 2012, 3.5 million embryos have been created in the UK over the past 21 years of which only 6% have resulted in pregnancies. A staggering 1.7 million embryos have been thrown away – it is no wonder that Lord Alton, a crossbench peer, describes this as the creation and destruction of life as being in ‘industrial numbers’.

The commodification and destruction of life is not the only human issue at stake. A substantial number of human eggs will be required to be harvested for this therapy, a process that is often painful and risky, also occasioning potential future psychological effects. It is likely that it will be vulnerable and desperate women who are cash-strapped, perhaps students struggling under a mountain of debt as well as those already experiencing infertility who will be lured into egg donation in return for a free cycle of IVF treatment.

 And that’s before we get to the core of the issue as to whether or not it is ethically acceptable to be genetically engineering human life and altering the genetic code of future generations? What will be the long-term physical and psychological impact upon those conceived by three parents? Attempts at cloning using nucleus transfer have proven unsuccessful in humans and highly dangerous in animals with a high proportion of spontaneous abortions and offspring born with abnormalities and limited life spans. Any unpredicted genetic problems would then be passed on to future generations. A baby born with three sets of DNA is still a human being of equal dignity and worth and yet will be treated and regarded as an anomaly or human guinea pig requiring lifelong monitoring.

When focusing upon the potential benefits of this technique, the geneticists involved have been very swift to point out the devastating consequences for those affected with mitochondrial disease with a succession of women who have tragically suffered multiple miscarriages or lost babies in infancy, being paraded in the press, who would avail themselves of the procedure were it to be available. It would take a heart of stone not to feel for these women or those individuals who are living with the daily consequences of mitochondrial disease, but genetic engineering is of scant comfort to existing sufferers. It does nothing to cure these illness or alleviate their symptoms. Researching treatments and supporting families of sufferers would be a more appropriate use of funds. The possibility of three parents embryo won’t help new parents who have just received a devastating diagnosis.

Given that it is estimated that around ten couples a year would use the procedure, it raises questions as to whether or not there is some other agenda at work here, as scientific pioneers are dependent upon being able to promote their work to those funding them, the public and decision makers, in order to obtain the regulatory changes and grants to continue and extend their work. The heart-rending cases that we are presented with as a justification are thankfully rare, but even if they were not, we should not allow disability to act as a barrier to being born, especially when it comes with such a high human price tag.

 In common with other life issues, we are being sold a treacherous slippery slope, one that opens up the possibility of genetically modifying pre-born human beings on the grounds that this will affect a tiny proportion of people and as being necessary on the grounds of compassion. How long before other genetic traits are able to be identified and modified before birth? We are not yet in Brave New World territory, but legislation to approve 3 parent embryos takes us another step towards it.

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