Frankly, I don’t know the right answer to give to those wishing to experiment with three-parent babies. But in the course of the debate I notice a few things that are worth commenting on. In no particular order, they are…
Prevention vs cure
Many are speaking of three parent babies as a way of curing mitochondrial diseases. Heart-jerking cases are presented and we are asked: are you heartless enough to force people into such suffering when the technology exists to cure it? This makes a compelling argument, except for one critical thing: no one is proposing a cure for mitochondrial diseases. To cure a condition, the condition must already exist. In the proposals before parliament, what is being proposed is a way of creating babies who do not have the condition in the first place.
So the question is not about alleviating existing suffering of those with mitochondrial diseases. Rather, it is about giving couples the chance to have a healthy baby, who would otherwise have to refrain from having (unhealthy) children. The suffering we are actually hoping to alleviate is that of couples who dearly want a child with (mostly) their own DNA. This is still an important question and it is the question we should actually be addressing. Although, it might make a less compelling argument when considered in the context of other questions, such as the need for couples who are willing to foster or adopt children.
Is there a line?
Is suffering a trump card, or are there cases where we would consider suffering to be a lesser evil? This is a critical question for our present society – not just in this regard, but in the debate about “assisted dying”. Those opposing three-parent babies are surely not insensitive to the suffering of couples who want a healthy baby, but cannot have one. But they consider the use of technology not to be morally neutral. And in the case of the proposed technology, they consider the introduction of three-parent babies to be a greater evil than the suffering.
Personally, I am squeamish about the idea of playing about with human embryos. However I do not know whether I would consider this to be the greater evil. Nonetheless, the point must be seriously understood that this is the case being made by those opposed to three-parent babies.
For my part, I simply notice that God, apparently, does not see suffering as a trump card. Indeed, God allows suffering even to the point of allowing his son to be brutally and humiliatingly murdered. Which is shocking in itself, but makes a huge amount of sense within a greater narrative where God is in the suffering with us and where God uses the suffering of this (short-lived) world in a transformative way that will ultimately ensure the destruction of all suffering in the (eternal) new world to come.
As I say, I am squeamish about playing about with human embryos. However, set against this are bigger questions. For example, some forms of contraception (which most Christians accept happily) may also work by causing healthy embryos to die, as the “how it works” section of this NHS page explains. If we’re against the destruction of embryos, then perhaps the Roman Catholic church’s attitude to contraception is closer to the right one. This is probably a conversation we should be having (maybe, in my ignorance, I am not aware that we already are?).
On the other hand, one consideration I don’t recall anyone else mentioning, is that a single-cell embryo is not unambiguously an immature human being. Some embryos will later split into two separate embryos, creating identical twins, each of whom is a distinct human being. Does it make sense, therefore, to speak of embryos as immature human beings before they pass the point where they could split into more than one human being? Again, it may just be my ignorance, but I think it would be good for us to have this conversation.
Sharing DNA – and what else?
The hype is around the sharing of the mitochondrial DNA of the third parent. However, from what I’ve seen, what is shared is the entire embryo from the third parent minus the cell nucleus. We focus on the DNA because this is an essential element in the making of new cells, being, amongst other things, a recipe book for making the required proteins. When we say that we are taking only the mitochondrial DNA from the third parent, we conjure up the idea that only an appendix is taken from the third parent’s recipe book (to continue the cooking analogy). However, from descriptions I’ve seen, I think it would be far more accurate to say that we’re taking the entire recipe book and the rest of the kitchen from the third parent, substituting all the pages except the appendix with those of the first and second parents and then implanting the entire assembly into the house of the first parent (i.e. the mum’s uterus).
I don’t know what ethical questions this raises, but there are clearly some overlaps with surrogate parenting (where kitchen and recipe book come from parents one and two, but the house is that of a third parent). Perhaps a greater question, though, is how much of our nature is derived solely from DNA (i.e. the recipe book) and how much depends on the rest of the system (i.e. the kitchen and the house). One observation in this regard is that it is known that the size of a baby is partly determined by the environment in the uterus (this was an essential part of Richard Dawkins’s argument in The Selfish Gene, if I recall correctly).
The fourth parent
One of the proposed methods for producing three-parent babies involves the use of a fertilised donor egg. This sneaks in a fourth parent – the man providing the sperm to fertilise the donor egg, who is then later excised. How do we feel about this? Would it change anything if the same father’s sperm were used for both eggs?
What about the relationship of the third parent to the child? It is a strangely intimate thing to be connected by mitochondrial DNA. This Guardian article simply sweeps this question under the rug by saying the third parent would remain anonymous and would have no rights over the child. But what about the child’s rights? So many adopted people, for example, go in search of their birth parents because they perceive that this is a very important part of their own identity. Does not mitochondrial DNA also contribute to “Who I am”?
There will be many opinions around this. As Christians, however, we have a very clear answer. The provision of DNA to Jesus by God the Father is critical to our understanding of who Jesus is. He is both fully man and fully God and in this way he carries human nature through death into life. He became human that we might become divine. (I’m invoking ancient Christian formulae here). Does the same not apply to human givers of DNA?
The guardian reports that 1 in 200 of children suffer from mitochondrial disorders, but only 1 in 6500 of these are seriously affected. So the proposed law will affect 1 in 1.3 million couples who want a child (and know that the mother’s mitochondrial DNA is at risk – how will they know, by the way?).
There has been a tendency in recent years to formulate laws to cover edge cases. I take this to be a bad principle (which I am not going to attempt to defend – so if you disagree with me, this becomes a moot question). This leaves us then asking: should we legislate about this at all? Would it not be better to do our best in making general laws and leave it at that? After all, any law will have exceptions and no matter how well you legislate, you won’t please everyone. Still: what should the general law be: that it is okay to muck about willy-nilly with human embryos or that this is an area of exploration where we think we should draw a line?
I don’t know most of the answers to the questions I pose. I would like to know much more about all of these things and see deeper exploration by those who are good at this kind of thinking before I can make up my mind. For now, I merely share these questions on the off-chance that others find them important as well.