Tech + Health

02.28.14

Why We Shouldn’t Freak Out Over Three-Person IVF

Forget the slippery slopes and fears of designer babies—we shouldn’t freak out over three-person IVF because it’s going to save lives.

Along with the Food and Drug Administration’s two-day meeting this week to discuss “three-person IVF” came the usual freak-outs about slippery slopes, designer babies, and other science-fiction fantasies (or nightmares) coming to life—magnified  by the strange thought of three people creating a healthy baby instead of the good ol’ two.

“What we’re talking about is radical experimentation on future children.  A decision of such profound magnitude should not be made behind the mostly closed doors of this agency,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society told the panel.

The concept of using three adults to create a child certainly goes against the grain of even the most modern conceptions of conception. Moreover, anything involving three individuals and sex seems to automatically conjure up salacious scenes from Y Tu Mamá También that seem unfit for the supposedly sacrosanct act of making a child.

However, the three-person IVF treatment under review is really not that outrageous—it’s neither a challenge to the two-parent model of conception nor a gateway to designer babies.

The treatment in question is for the sole purpose of helping women with defective mitochondria, the organelle responsible for energy production in the cell, from passing on the associated diseases to their offspring. One in every 5,000 babies born in the United States inherits conditions due to mitochondrial disorders, including blindness, epilepsy, and organ failure. The conditions can be lethal, as was the case for Sharon Bernardi who lost all seven of her children due to her mitochondrial disorders. She has advocated for the three-person IVF method to become available in the United Kingdom, where regulations are currently being drafted to allow the procedure.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed on only by the mother, so researchers have devised a way to transplant an outside female donor’s healthy mitochondrial DNA while maintaining the mother’s nuclear DNA.

Looking at the responses to the first basic IVF, a practice that has not only become standard but is largely praised, reveals our kneejerk tendency to conjure up nightmares when we used technology to advance fertility.

According to Dr. Samuel Pang, the medical director of the Reproductive Science Center (RSC) of New England, “99.99 percent of genetic material comes from nuclear DNA,” which would all be from the mother. “Maybe a tiny fraction of one percent” comes from the mitochondrial DNA, so the outside donor’s genetic impact would be extremely minimal.

In short, replacing the mitochondrial DNA would not have a major effect on a human, other than to prevent the development of crippling mitochondrial disorders. “We’re not choosing genes for eye color or hair color or intelligence,” said Pang. “We’re simply transfusing mitochondria into an egg to prevent that egg from into developing into a child with mitochondrial disease.”

When you scrutinize the details of this fertility procedure and consider how small of a genetic impact the donor mitochondrial DNA will have, “three-parent IVF,” as it is sometimes referred to as, seems like a misnomer. But unfortunately, we have a long history of overreacting and stirring up the worst fears when it comes to a new development in the field of in-vitro fertilization.

Looking at the responses to the first basic IVF, a practice that has not only become standard but is largely praised, reveals our kneejerk tendency to conjure up nightmares when we used technology to advance fertility.

Following the UK birth of Louise Brown, the first baby successfully conceived and delivered via IVF, in July of 1978, the letters to the New York Times show that Americans were shocked and quite a bit repulsed at a fertility treatment that seemed to come straight out of a modern-day Frankenstein.

“But what of that ‘Brave New World’ syndrome where the laboratory technician can become as God,” mused the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Bio-ethics Committee in one letter. However, the fears of a “Brave New World” syndrome where doctors are deities has hardly come to pass, even after five million babies have been born via IVF.

Another angry reader lamented that “we have come to regard the pursuit of technology as an inalienable right. Hence the confused scrambling about for reasons why we should make babies in Petrie dishes instead of beds.” Yet, the fact that we are employing greater governmental review and additional regulatory procedure to fertility technology today than we did in 1978 only go to show that we are far form taking these treatments for granted as an “inalienable right.”

And contrary to that reader’s fear that IVF would be “the latest toy for rich women, no less a luxury than plastic surgery on a socialite,” the procedure has only become increasing available and affordable to families across the world. By no means is that to say it is affordable to all, but it is not reserved for only the most elite to create hybrid Albert Einstein-Heidi Klum-Lebron James “designer babies.”

To be fair, even nearly 40 years later, IVF is not without controversy, particularly among some of the more conservative pro-lifers who believe discarding not-implanted embryos are tantamount to abortion. But the chilling visions of creepily-perfect babies reserved for the super rich that will grow to dominate our mere “naturally-conceived” humans have so far been entirely off of the mark.

“The people who say it’s a slippery slope to designer babies are really using inflammatory language to scare people,” said Pang.

That is not to say there isn’t a need for further research or that, as with any new procedure, prospective parents will be taking some level of risk. But to stand in the way of a technology that could potentially spare thousands of children from life-threatening and debilitating disorders seems far more unnatural than any fertility treatment.

Too often in bioethics debates, we forget the people who are actually going to be affected by a new procedure. As Dr. Pang said, “The people who criticize I feel really need to walk in the shoes of people who suffer from disease before they pass judgment.”