Tuesday, 3 February 2015

three person babies - do we have the right to play God?

Today MP’s voted in favour of allowing the UK to become the first country to create babies using two women and one man.  The procedure is aimed towards being able to create babies who are free from mitochondrial disease, a devastating genetic condition which results in death. 


In this procedure, the mitochondria will be removed from the egg of the woman who carries the condition, and replaced with the mitochondria from the egg of a donor woman, thus resulting in a baby which will be genetically related to three people.


For me this brings up several issues.  The first is the deeply emotive possibility of being able to ensure that a baby does not carry a genetic condition from which he or she will almost certainly die, or being born a carrier of a condition which might be passed to future generations. 


Eradicating disability is controversial, because those who have a disability often see this as society’s desire too eliminate people like them from existence.  However choosing to have a baby knowing that it might carry a genetic condition and thus could be born with a disability is one which most people do not take lightly.  When the condition in question is one which will ultimately result in early death many parents opt to not have a baby at all rather than go through the process of falling pregnant and the subsequent heartbreak of losing their child. 


It is therefore understandable that parents would want to have a baby that did not carry such a devastating condition, not only for themselves, but because no parent willingly wants to put their child through any kind of pain and much less an agonising early death. 


However the other issue that this procedure raises is one of moral and ethical concern.  In order to create an embrio free from mitochondrial disorder that baby will in effect be related to three people, rather than two.  And while it has been confirmed that no character traits of the third person will be transferred to the baby, there is no escaping the fact that we are tampering with the laws of nature in order to create a baby free from a disease.


I’ve heard arguments that every time we treat an illness, create a vaccine, invent a new medical treatment we are tampering with nature.  But this is different.  This is creating life at the very beginning, interfering with the common building blocks of life by creating a baby from not two parents as nature intended, but three.  Regardless of the fact that there are currently no physical or personality traits involved in this process, we are none the less re-defining the process of procreation.


And once you start down this route, where does it end?  People talk of designer babies, a term which I personally do not like, however it is surely only a matter of time before a process designed to eradicate certain conditions will be open to misuse.   


We already have procedures to eliminate certain disabilities through a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (pgd), whereby embrio’s carrying certain conditions are discarded during an IVF cycle, and only those embrio’s which do not carry the condition are implanted back into the uterus.  This process is already being used in other countries such as Spain and Cyprus to allow parents to select the gender of their baby, so the “designer” possibility has already begun to be a reality.


And what of the future?  This treatment is still in its inphancy, and so it is therefore not possible to know what will happen in the future with regards to an adult who has three genetic links having children of their own.  By the time the ramifications of this treatment become truly known, those who pioneered it may no longer be around, and we will face the possibility of genetically modified adults having to face a whole new problem with conditions related to genetic modification which cannot become known until they emerge, by which time genetic modification will not be able to be undone. 


Most of us wouldn’t want to buy genetically modified products in the supermarket, so why are we so on board with creating genetically modified human beings? 


The reasons for doing so are of course emotional, and I can of course only sympathise with anyone who has been through the loss of a child due to a genetic condition which could in future be iradicated.


But while I think it is possible to marvel at what can be achieved through science, I also think that sometimes, just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should.

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