Britain recently launched a public consultation into allowing the use of a treatment that would effectively give a child genetic material from three people: their mother, their father and a female donor.
Religious conservatives have already clamored to raise their ethical concerns, but what are the facts, and are any of the objections justified?
Mitochondrial Abnormalities and The Impact on Child Health
Mitochondria serve several purposes, but one of their main functions is to convert energy for use by every cell in our body. It is estimated that around 1 out of every 200 children will be born with mitochondrial abnormalities. Such abnormalities can go completely undetected and may hardly ever trouble the child at all.
Other times, the disease can lead to muscle weakness, intestinal disorders, heart disease and, in some cases, can be fatal.
Using Donor Mitochondria
Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child. Therefore, if the mother’s mitochondria are defective, mitochondrial diseases may be passed to their offspring.
What is being proposed by this new treatment is replacing the mother’s unhealthy mitochondria with healthy material from another woman.
Mitochondria have their own DNA separate from the nucleus. Due to the processes this technique involves, as described in detail by the BBC, the genetic trade would technically create children who would have a lineage from three people.
The law in the UK currently says that while such a process can be carried out in the lab, the embryos cannot be used in IVF.
As with most topics surrounding IVF treatment, the idea of changing the law is set to be controversial.
That’s why the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is running a public consultation.
A representative of HFEA is quoted as saying:
“The Government has asked us to take the public temperature on this important and emotive issue.
“The decision about whether mitochondria replacement should be made available to treat patients is not only an issue of great importance to families affected by these terrible diseases, but is also one of enormous public interest. We find ourselves in unchartered [sic] territory, balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society.”
It should also be noted that after an extensive review, the proposed treatment method has been deemed to be within current ethical standards. Still, the consultation aims at accessing wider concerns.
What Are The Concerns Regarding “Three-Parent” IVF?
Safety of Mitochondrial Replacement — While some have claimed that this procedure is dangerous, HFEA carried out an extensive review of mitochondrial replacement in 2011 and found that there were no concerns about the two methods that are being proposed.
As is standard though, they then set down a minimum set of experiments to further examine the procedures to ensure any outstanding safety concerns over human use were answered. A new mitochondrial research center was then established to carry out said experiments. The Trust that financed the research, along with a number of other medical charities, is now urging the government to press ahead with changing the law, having seen no apparent risks that could not be mitigated by proper oversight.
Creating Three Parents — This remains almost exclusively a public discourse concern and not a scientific one. Why? For the purpose of understanding parental rights, a line can quite easily be drawn between the man and a woman who have initiated the process for having children, pledging their nucleic DNA and all, and the donor whose mitochondrial DNA, but no other material, will be transferred. Scientists have been keen to stress that genetically the child will have only one mother and one father.
Still, this hasn’t stopped religious conservatives like Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, overlooking this and saying:
“It is in a child’s best interests to know their biological mother and father. Creating children with three parents will result in confusion and cause identity issues among both parents and children, with serious repercussions for society.
The merits of this argument, or their lack, aside, this spells out one of the central points of contention we can expect to hear.
General objections to IVF — Other voices have charged that the process will inevitably lead to embryos being destroyed. For those that believe life starts at conception (or even before), this stands to be another frequent concern.
“Tampering” With How Life is Created – Some critics have said this marks the first step in “tampering” with how life is created, apparently forgetting the myriad of tiny ways we have already adjusted the “creation” process to make it more safe or to widen who may or may not be able to have children.
The idea of “designer babies” is also floated in this same bracket, the idea of tampering with a child’s genetic make-up in order to make it super-fit. This is not what is happening in this case, however. In essence, though more complex in practice, mitochondrial replacement would swap out faulty mitochondria for healthy replacements, simply correcting a fault and sparing the child the potential for fatal disease.
The Public Consultation & Debate
The consultation will run until December 7.
While Britain is leading the way in this field, it is likely to be years before any mitochondrial replacement is actually carried out.