Creation of Human Embryos With Three Parents Facing Massive Opposition

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Oct 27, 2013   |   5:38PM   |   Washington, DC

To stop the latest of the Brave New World movements, we need a cacophony of resistance. Luckily, it is not just pro-lifers that are sounding the alarm about three-parent IVF, also called mitochondrial replacement (MR).

People from all sides are voicing their concerns about the ethics and safety of this technique where a donor egg’s nucleus is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a woman with mitochondrial disease. That genetically-engineered egg is then fertilized with sperm creating an embryo that has genetic material from three persons, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the donor, and nuclear DNA contributed by the parents.

And while it sounds like a nice thing to be able to help women who have mitochondrial disease to have healthy children (a woman with a mutation in her mtDNA cannot help but pass on that mutation because we inherit our mitochondria from our mother), there is a laundry list of ethical issues that finally seem to be gaining traction.

Jessica Cussins, an IVF-conceived adult, pretty much hits them all in her piece at the Huffington Post.

There is the fact that there is a shocking lack of animal studies which means that no one really knows that this is safe, and yet many are willing to move forward with this blatant experimentation on the next generation.

There is also the fact that this is a germ-line genetic modification which means it will be passed on to further generations. I will add that the only way to prevent that would be to toss out all the female embryos and transfer only males since they could not pass on their mitochondria. This has been suggested already.

Finally, Cussins points out something I have yet to cover: the fact that mitochondrial replacement has more in common with SCNT, better known as cloning, than it does IVF. In both cloning and MR, the nucleus of a donor egg is removed and replaced with another. In cloning, the egg is made to think it has been fertilized. In MR, the egg is fertilized.

We know that SCNT in animals has had some serious problems. Cloning trials in agricultural animals in New Zealand were halted because an unacceptable number of the cloned animals and their gestating mothers had to be euthanized.

Cussins writes:

So, I just can’t agree with the recent article in The Scientist, which compared the unease around mitochondrial replacement techniques to the initial unease surrounding traditional IVF. I’m glad that people were concerned about the welfare of us IVF kids, but mitochondrial replacement (which is much closer technically to reproductive cloning than it is to traditional IVF) is exponentially more problematic.

On a certain level, she is right. This is not just another reproductive technology. We are on a threshold. Will we move forward in genetically-engineering our children, forever changing the course of humanity? Cussins points out the importance:

There are larger social and ethical considerations that mitochondrial replacement also forces us to confront. Most importantly, this technology raises one of the thorniest questions humanity will ever face: are we willing to genetically modify future generations of humans?



The technique under consideration isn’t like gene therapy, which modifies a specific location in the genetic makeup of one person who consents to the treatment. What is at stake here is much broader: the modification of the germline, the inheritable genetic code that connects humanity from one generation to the next. Members of the Council of Europe recently declared that such technologies are “incompatible with human dignity.” And, as Bill McKibben puts it in his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, “The stakes in this argument are absurdly high, nothing less than the meaning of being human.”

Cussins last thoughts hint at the same suggestion that I have made. Instead of engineering people to not have mitochondrial disease, how about we focus on cures and treatments for mitochondrial disease, not just for future generations, but for people who are living with it right now:

I hope that this discussion will also raise awareness and improve access to healthcare for the people who are already alive and struggling with mitochondrial diseases today.

Of course we Catholics reject IVF in all its forms and we understand that the three-parent IVF is just a logical progression of making life outside the body. But, we have allies in this fight against the creation of genetically-engineered children in those who may disagree with our views on reproductive technologies. I am certain it will take all our voices together to halt this bullet train.