Science, especially the field of genetic engineering, has been a controversial topic for decades. The question, ‘when does this become “playing God”?’ is frequently asked. Where do we draw the line? Well, apparently not at three-parent babies.

The research for three-parent babies has been around for a while. The babies would have three genetic parents, created through a specialized form of in vitro fertilisation. The procedure is intended to prevent mitochondrial diseases including diabetes mellitus and deafness and some heart and liver conditions. In 2000, a girl in the US (Alana Saarinen) was conceived through an infertility treatment known as cytoplasmic transfer and has DNA from three biological parents. As a result of this, several research teams in the United Kingdom requested a regulatory approval for a similar technique called mitochondrial replacement. In February 2015, the House of Lords legalised three-parent babies.

Professor Dagan Wells, Associate Professor at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, University of Oxford argues:

‘Disorders involving defective mitochondria can have catastrophic consequences for the affected individuals, sometimes causing death during infancy. For many years it has been possible to diagnose mitochondrial conditions, but what then? There have been few treatment options and no cure.

‘Now, after years of careful research, we are finally at a point where a cure for mitochondrial disorders may be within reach. There has been an opportunity for public consultation and this has revealed broad support for the use of this therapy under appropriate regulation. The most telling thing is the support for mitochondrial donation from affected families.

‘None of us can understand the impact of a mitochondrial disorder as well as they do, so their voices need to be heard. The way in which rigorous scientific research and vigorous public debate have been carried out in parallel in this instance will serve as a model for how ethically challenging scientific advances should be considered for clinical use in the future’.

Children born from mothers who carry faulty mitochondria can be healthy and free from deadly conditions caused by serious mitochondrial disease. If we can prevent suffering from disease we cannot control, is it not our responsibility to prevent it? Is this not the right thing to do?

Although, this technique could reduce the amount of babies born with health problems, there are many ethical issues surrounding the procedure.

Embryos in this procedure will also have to be created simply in order to be destroyed. These embryos have the potential to become a human life, do they then not deserve the same rights as everyone else? Is it morally right, to experiment on them? Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher once said, ‘when I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way’.

Some people are troubled by the fact that these procedures could have psychological and emotional impacts on a child’s life, especially that child’s sense of identity. When it comes to mitochondrial transfer, ‘second mothers’ will remain anonymous, under the draft regulations. Doesn’t a child have the right to know their parentage? Do they not have the right to know their true identities? If a third party has contributed DNA, are they not in fact a parent? Why should they not have a say in the child’s life? Who are the real parents?

These treatments could alter genes across generations, although this has not been proven, while the safety and efficacy of mitochondrial DNA replacement remains unanswered. The World Health Organisation says that techniques ‘where there is an intention or possibility of altering genes passed on to the next generation…should not be permitted in the foreseeable future’. Long-term side effects are unknown, so is this a risk that we should be willing to take?

Opponents to three-parent babies argue that scientists are ‘playing God’. Do we have the right to change the genes of generations to come without knowing the implications? If we can conceive three-parent babies, what is to stop people from choosing the colour of their children’s eyes? Their hair colour? This could mean that there will be a sharp decline in the amount of disabled in society. Does this mean that they are somehow lesser people than everyone else? Are ‘designer babies’ an option we really want to allow in the future?

Whether you believe that mitochondrial treatment is a step in the right or the wrong direction, there are implications to this technique that have to be seriously considered. The UK has already legalised this procedure but is it the right decision? Is this a step too far?

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