The False Idol of Desiring Healthy Children

Three parent embryos, that is, embryos with three genetic parents…wait a minute…how can a child have three genetic parents?…what does this mean? The technology is not new, it’s been around for years. What is new is that the British government voted last week to allow this type method to be used on human embryos.

Reading the comments and the letters to the editor in the Telegraph (UK newspaper), you can see the arguments going back and forth: one side says this is a “playing God” while the other side accuses Christians of being “uncaring” towards childless parents or ignorant of science. To (hopefully) clarify things a little, I’ll explain what one of these three embryo processes entails.

The first thing to understand is that in the area surrounding the nucleus of an embryo exists what is called mitochondrial DNA. We’ve long been told that our DNA comes from our mother and our father and that all the genetic material needed to create you was contained in the sperm and the ovum. But there’s more than just the genetic material in the nucleus; we now know that the mitochondrial DNA in the embryo directly affects the DNA in the nucleus, thus, if unhealthy mitochondria is present, then genetic diseases or birth defects will be passed into the nucleus DNA.

So, what’s the technique for creating three parent embryos and why all the brouhaha? You start with the parents’ embryo that has unhealthy mitochondria. In parallel, you get a donor embryo with healthy mitochondria. Obviously, these are all created via in vitro fertilization (IVF), which presents it own set of ethical issues—such as creating more than you need and leaving some in frozen storage (cryopreservation), or rejecting embryos based on a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis that points to a genetic disease being present, or tossing out the embryo that is the “wrong” sex.

In step 2, you remove the nucleus from the parents’ embryo as well as removing the nucleus from the donor embryo. The donor embryo nucleus is destroyed (i.e., killed—a human life is ended). In step 3, you put the parents’ nucleus into the donor’s denucleated embryo. The nucleus continues to develop and you (hopefully) get a healthy baby.

Here’s a simple graphic from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority that shows one way that a three parent embryo can be created.

The process for creating a three parent embryo. Source: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority

The process for creating a three parent embryo. Source: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority

Don’t forget that you probably won’t do this to just one embryo because you want to increase the chance of success. Just as in the regular IVF process, multiple three parent embryos will likely be created, and several of them will either be tossed due to genetic deficiencies that crop up after step 3 or kept in limbo through cryopreservation.

In the discussions I’ve seen so far, no one has decried the killing of the donor’s embryo, which is a human life being sacrificed for the idol of having a healthy baby. All the supporters merely point out that either: a) I should be able to have a baby (or a healthy baby) if I want to; or b) why don’t you want to help these poor men and women who can’t have a baby (or a healthy baby). The fact that you have to purposely end a human life in order to have that healthy baby is what’s fundamentally wrong with this procedure. One life is deemed unworthy of life and it is being ended and discarded simply so that another, more “fitting,” life may continue.

Desiring healthy children is not, in and of itself, a false idol. But when we start doing whatever it takes to ensure that we have healthy children, including ending other human life, then it has become an idol.

What does that say about us as a society?

Updated: February 10, 2015 at 11:48 a.m. EST

Gattaca Coming to a Doctor’s Office Near You

To be honest, the first time I watched the movie Gattaca, I thought it was one of the most boring movies I had ever watched. However, since then it has become one of my favorite sci-fi movies and I’ve watched it several times finding new nuances each time.

In the movie, genetically engineering your child is an option, you don’t have to do it. However, the local school won’t accept the un-engineered child because the insurance risk is too high; the better jobs, like engineer or astronaut, aren’t open to un-engineered persons because they’re deemed worthy of only doing menial labor; and what happens to the genetically engineered, “perfect” human when he suffers paralysis in a car accident and can no longer do the things he was programmed to do?

Too far-fetched to really happen? Not so. A new Telegraph article summarizes an article written by University of Oxford philosophy professor Julian Savulescu, who believes that we have a moral obligation to genetically engineer “better” people. The original article appears in the September issue of Reader’s Digest UK.

In the professor’s article, as partially reprinted in the Telegraph, he writes about how we should be screening for “personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence.” Because we can do this, he believes “that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children” because they will be “less likely to harm themselves and others.”

He continues (as reported in the Telegraph):

“If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should.”

He said that unlike the eugenics movements, which fell out of favour when it was adopted by the Nazis, the system would be voluntary and allow parents to choose the characteristics of their children.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is still eugenics. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects (i.e. don’t let the undesirables have children), this is focusing on the positive aspects (i.e. let’s make sure everyone is has an “ethical” offspring). But the main unanswered question is: “Who decides which traits are desirable and which traits are not?”

And even though Savulescu says it should be voluntary, as we can see with the current HHS contraception mandate in the U.S., someone will eventually decide that it shouldn’t be voluntary and the government should force people to do its will. Sinful human nature being what it is eventually leads to this path. (Reference the conversation between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Star Wars Episode II when they are in a field on Naboo discussing poliltics…Anakin thinks it would be okay to use the Force to make star systems get in line…sound familiar?)

The article continues:

“We’re routinely screening embryos and foetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome, and there’s little public outcry,” he said.

“What’s more, few people protested at the decisions in the mid- 2000s to allow couples to test embryos for inherited bowel and breast cancer genes, and this pushes us a lot close to creating designer humans.”

Here’s my next question: “Who is responsible if a doctor tries to genetically engineer an undesirable trait out of a child but the child still develops that trait?” People are suing doctors and hospitals now for “wrongful birth” issues when a child is born with a genetic disease that the parents aren’t told about or weren’t caught in the genetic testing. What will happen in the future when someone says he will remove an undesirable trait and doesn’t do it?

“Whether we like it or not, the future of humanity is in our hands now. Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it. We can do better than chance.”

This is where I start getting upset. Why does Savulescu paint everyone who is against his idea as fearing genetics? That automatically puts people on the defensive or makes them start to think that there’s nothing wrong with genetic engineering. To make my point clear, I’m not afraid of genetics, I’m afraid of what some kook will do with it. Has it occurred to Savulescu that if you can genetically engineer certain traits out of a gene sequence, then you can genetically engineer them into a sequence? What if someone wants to engineer a person worse than Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot? What if someone wants to engineer a soldier that experiences no fear going into combat or remorse over killing someone (as in the movie Soldier)?

Before we go further into this brave new world, we should keep in mind the old adage, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.”

PS: The Telegraph article has an online poll which asks: “Should we consider genetically screening behavioural traits?” As of 4:44 p.m. EDT on August 16, “Yes, everybody benefits, including the child” received 36 percent of the votes while “No, it is wrong to play God in this way” received 64 percent.

Updated 2:40 pm. on August 17, 2012.

All the News Redux

Here’s another example of deliberate misinformation, if not by commission then by omission.

The April 2009 issue of Scientific American–and no, I have not caught up on my reading, I was just browsing around the Internet–has a short news item on the successful treatment of 21 patients with multiple sclerosis (as I wrote about in “All the News That’s Not Fit to Print“). The treatment involved using bone marrow cells, which are adult stem cells. And yet the little news piece is coupled with the excitement of “data from stem cell therapies in general” becoming available soon because the FDA has approved the first human embryonic stem cell trial.

Maybe it’s just me, but…this is completely deceptive.

Continue reading “All the News Redux”

All the News That’s Not Fit to Print

<<With apologies to the New York Times.>>

I know I’m really behind in my reading, but I ran across a item of interest in the November 2008 issue of Scientific American that I wanted to share. In the “In Brief” sidebar of their News Scan section, there was a short item on page 36. It mentions a new successful treatment in mice for strokes. What they don’t tell you is actually much more interesting.

I haven’t been able to locate the original reference to the specific study they mention, so I don’t know precisely what type of stem cells the researchers were using in that study: embryonic stem cells,  adult stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). However, as far back as 2004, researchers were already treating strokes in research animals using adult stem cells, one of the types of stem cells that does not require the destruction of a human embryo.

Continue reading “All the News That’s Not Fit to Print”