Three Parent-IVF Treatments And Disease-Free Children: If You Could Design Your Baby, Would You?

July 1, 2013  |  

One out of 33 children in the United States is born with some sort of birth defect annually; about one out of five of those children will die as an infant. What if through genetic engineering you could assure that your future child will be free of defects and other hereditary disorders? Would you do it? Better question, should you do it?

It may sound like the stuff out of science fiction movies and books, but it appears that our society might be closer than we think to having to face those ethical and moral questions. According to Reuters, Britain will begin offering the controversial “3-parent” fertility treatments to potential parents who are at risk of of passing down incurable diseases to their future offspring. From the article:

The methods, currently only at the research stage in laboratories in Britain and the United States, would for the first time involve implanting genetically modified embryos into women, and raise serious ethical questions.

The techniques involve intervening in the fertilization process to remove faulty mitochondrial DNA, which can cause inherited conditions such as fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders, blindness and muscular dystrophy.

They are designed to help families with mitochondrial diseases – incurable conditions passed down the maternal line that affect around one in 6,500 children worldwide. Mitochondria act as tiny energy-generating batteries inside cells.

The controversial potential treatment is known as three-parent in vitro fertilization (IVF) because the offspring would have genes from a mother, a father and from a female donor. After a national public consultation showed Britons broadly favor the idea, the government’s chief physician said on Friday it should be allowed to go ahead under strict regulation.”

Britain will become the first country in the world to offer the controversial fertility treatments, but if it is already being tested in the United States, odds are it will likely not be the last. And here we have all these children sitting in orphanages and the foster care system needing homes…

Okay, maybe that’s not fair. But it does seem like a lot to go through just to say you conceived a child. And I do say that not to be snarky but rather to point out that in the genetic research community, you have to ponder on a treatment, which sort of fuddles the genetic and emotional connections biological parents often have with their children. The legal ramifications alone around rightful paternity – and those questions will come up – shows that this IVF option certainly has the potential to create a messy situation.

And are we sure that it will even work? According to an article in Live Science, many heritable traits have multiple genes, so pinpointing which gene to alter or how to stop said trait, characteristic or disorder from happening might prove difficult. And the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation website says that while mitochondrial diseases are generally believed to be an inherited genetic condition for others who have developed the disease, environmental factors can also be the culprit. Therefore, it can’t be guaranteed that a child into adulthood will never develop the disease. Or as pointed out by paper on the American Institute of Biological Sciences:

A further moral complication emerges from the different approaches to treating disease and those who suffer from them. Genetically modifying an embryo so as to remove a gene linked with a higher than average risk of asthma may prevent asthma, but it need not prevent the existence of the person who might have suffered from it. Compare this with the use of PGD to avoid having a child at a high risk of asthma. This seems to prevent the disease only by preventing the patient’s existence.”

It just seems like a slippery slope that we will go down without knowing the full ramifications. Today it will be for actual medical conditions, but at some point, it is likely that this treatment option will be made available to parents who just want kids with the “master race” gene. Not to mention, we haven’t cured genocide yet, and the last thing we want is for folks in positions of great power with what can possibly be the key to eugenics.

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