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Monday, February 9, 2015

Three-parent IVF the first step on the path to designer babies

IN the not-too-distant future, expect little Johnny to be accompanied to the playground by not just Mummy and Daddy but a third biological parent – Mummy 2.0.

It sounds like something out of a bad science fiction movie, but thanks to the passing of a controversial Bill by British lawmakers allowing the creation of three-parent IVF babies, it’s a very real prospect.

MPs in the House of Commons this week voted in favour of the procedure known as “mitochondrial replacement”, while the House of Lords is expected to ratify that decision in as little as a fortnight.

The technology has obvious benefits: it will help as many as 2500 women a year in the UK with severe mitochondrial disease, who are at risk of passing down the devastating condition to their offspring and thus putting them in danger of blindness, deafness, muscle wastage and even death.

Yet the medical breakthrough raises just as many ethical concerns, chief among them that its approval marks a slippery slope towards a future generation of “designer babies”.

Thanks to advancements in assisted reproduction, hundreds of thousands of couples and singles around the world have had the opportunity to bear children through IVF.

But where do we draw the line?

At what point do we realise we’ve gone too far in our obsession with creating perfect spawn and accept that not all of us were meant to become biological parents ... and that is totally okay.

This push for eugenics, the science of improving the genetic quality of the human population, invokes disturbing scenes from Aldous Huxley’s classic 1931 novel, Brave New World, which is set in a dehumanised future where sex has become strictly recreational and foetuses are bred in test tubes, genetically formulated to fit into predetermined roles.

As with commercial surrogacy, three-parent IVF could also break the murky waters of reproductive commodification.

In Australia, egg and sperm donation as well as surrogacy is altruistic only, meaning donors and surrogates can only be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses and are therefore not driven by money.

The result is a chronic shortage of willing donors and surrogates, with many aspiring parents feeling compelled to travel overseas to countries – often poverty-stricken – where it is legal (or illegal, but easy to elude authorities) to pay for the service.

As perfectly illustrated last year by the baby Gammy scandal in which a Down syndrome twin boy was abandoned with his surrogate by his Australian biological parents – including a father who was a convicted child sex offender – paying for reproductive services is fraught with complications.

It’s not hard to imagine there will be similar horror stories should three-parent IVF become widely available, with parents seeking out impoverished women from Third World nations to donate their genetic material with the lure of cold, hard cash. And while the technique is heralded as a revolution for women with mitochondrial disease, what stops it being abused by polyamorous or same-sex couples wanting all their genes passed down to their next of kin?

British MP Fiona Bruce argued in parliament that once approved, it would be impossible to predict where three-parent IVF could lead.

“One thing is for sure, once this alteration has taken place, as someone has said, once the gene is out of the bottle, once these procedures that we’re asked to authorise today go ahead, there will be no going back for society,” Ms Bruce said.

David King from campaign group Human Genetics Alert cautions: “Once you cross the ethical line, it is very hard not to take the next step of designer babies.”

While many scientists have attempted to downplay the process’s ethical implications, Professor Stuart Newman from the New York Medical College calls it “large-scale human genetic engineering”.

He compares mitochondrial replacement (MR) to cloning, warning it could have the same disastrous effects as that procedure had on the first cloned sheep, Dolly, who died prematurely.

“The hazards of cloning also pertain to (MR) … since the manipulations are the same,” Prof Newman wrote in the Huffington Post. “Clones tend to die prematurely, as happened with Dolly, or exhibit enlarged organs and metabolic abnormalities.”

The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is yet to authorise the technology for human use and only then will it have the job of formulating regulation around the science.

When that happens, let’s hope the procedure is performed responsibly and not just to satisfy the whims of those who want mini-mes at any cost.


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