Every few months, a story pops up about a new frontier in reproductive medical technologies: so-called “three-parent IVF.” NPR recently reported on efforts in Britain to allow embryos created via this technique to be transferred into women’s uteruses, while a New York Times Magazine cover article last summer focused on whether the Federal Drug Administration would approve human clinical trials.
The three-parent IVF technique engenders controversy partly because all reproductive technologies do, but also because it would be the first technique to make germ line-level changes in human embryos - changes to an embryo’s DNA that could be passed on to future generations. The technique manipulates mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Our mitochondria convert oxygen into energy and power our cells; mtDNA exists separately from our other DNA, and is passed straight from mother to child without recombining with the father’s DNA. In the “three-parent” IVF technique, mtDNA from one woman’s egg is removed and replaced with mtDNA from another woman’s egg, and the egg is then fertilized. A child born as a result would still inherit half of his/her regular DNA from the father and half from the mother. But his/her cells would also contain donor mtDNA. Researchers hope the technique would allow women with a family history of mitochondrial disorders (which can range from mild to fatal) have healthy children.
By producing heritable genetic changes in human embryos – changes which essentially result in three-parent babies - this technique would cross an ethical bright line that many researchers and ethicists agree ought not to be crossed. This game-changing technique would help relatively few women (mitochondrial disorders are quite rare), who already have technologies available to raise unaffected children, including adoption, IVF with donor eggs and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. All of these family-building options pose significant ethical quandaries of their own. But that they are available begs the question of why we should cross a troubling ethical line to help a population that has other options.
This technique would cross an ethical bright line that many researchers and ethicists agree ought not to be crossed.
To be sure, as someone with my own history of genetic disease, I understand that women affected by mitochondrial disorders are not just “a population with other options,” but beloved individuals with hopes, dreams and griefs about which we are called to care, just as God does. For the women at risk of having babies with mitochondrial disorders and their partners, their situation’s rarity is meaningless. This is their babies we’re talking about. This is a deeply personal issue affecting the children with the chubby hands they will wipe after breakfast each morning, the eyes and lips and cheeks they will stroke at bedtime each night. Parental love reflects the intimate, knowing love of a God who numbers every hair on our heads - a fact that calls us to compassion toward parents for whom ethically fraught technologies feel like an answer to thousands of wrenching prayers.
Yet God’s intimate, deeply personal love of each and every human being is also a reason to hold to that ethical bright line. While we understand much about the mechanics of reproduction and genetic information, much of the process is still shrouded in mystery. In that mystery, we, as believers, see a reflection of God and a message of sorts about what it means to be human. Our humanity cannot be reduced to our genetic code, or to the "raw matter" of our bodily parts. As Anglican bioethicist Oliver O’Donovan wrote in his essay, In a Glass Darkly:
The element of chance is one of the factors which most distinguish the act of begetting from the act of technique. In allowing something to randomness, we confess that, though we might, from a purely technical point of view, direct events, it is beyond our competence to direct them well. We commit ourselves to divine providence because we have reached the point at which we know we must stop making, and simply be. …Randomness is the inscrutable face which providence turns to us when we cannot trace its ways or guess its purpose. To accept the fact is to accept that we cannot plan for the best as God plans for the best, and that we cannot read his plans before the day he declares them.
There is so much about how we become who we are, about how genetics does and doesn’t influence that process, that we don’t understand. Might we someday? Perhaps. But right now, there is too much unknown for us to say “yes” to techniques leading to genetically modified babies now and down through generations, even as we understand how these techniques could provide hope and health to families affected by mitochondrial disease.