Of Course It's Ethical To Make 'Three-Parent' Babies

Yet Congress is keeping parents from using modern biotech to prevent disease in their offspring



Seeking to cure prospective babies of terrible diseases is clearly ethical, right? Sadly, not everyone seems to agree. Old-fashioned doctor-knows-best paternalism has all too often been replaced by bioethicist-knows-best paternalism—or worse yet, by panel-of-bioethicists-knows-best paternalism. Or at least that's the case with a promising new set of treatments called mitochondria replacement therapy (MRT).

Every cell has scores of mitochondria swimming in its cytoplasm, providing the energy that keeps them functioning. Human mitochondria have their own set of 37 genes located outside of the cellular nuclei. Because egg cells, but not sperm cells, contribute mitochondria to developing embryos, children can only inherit their mitochondria from their mothers. As with other genes, sometimes mitochondrial genes mutate and cause disease. Researchers have identified more than 250 pathogenic mitochondrial DNA mutations so far. Somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 children are born every year in the U.S. suffering from some kind of mitochondrial disease.

Researchers hit on the idea of curing mitochondrial diseases by replacing defective mitochondria with healthy ones derived from eggs donated by other women. Back in 2001, fertility specialist Jacques Cohen and his colleagues at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey transferred ooplasm containing mitochondria from healthy donor eggs to the eggs of women experiencing infertility. The experiments resulted in the births of 15 healthy babies.

The work was opposed by the usual bioethical busybodies. As the New York Times reported, "Two ethicists, Erik Parens of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., and Eric Juengst of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, suggested that such treatments, because they result in permanent genetic alterations that in turn will be passed on to the babies' children, might not have been approved by a federal committee that oversees experiments that involve gene transfer." The women had all been fully informed of the risks and benefits and had given their consent to the procedure, so Cohen and his team believed that they did not have to ask permission from the federal ethics gatekeepers—especially since their work was privately funded. How naive!

When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got wind of the new development, the agency asserted that it had jurisdiction over the treatments and promptly banned them. And that is where matters have ever since stood, as women continued to endure infertility and more babies were born suffering from mitochondrial diseases. Very ethical.


Recently, two groups of researchers have approached the FDA asking permission to try MRT as a treatment in embryos to help women have healthy babies. All of these therapies basically involve installing the nuclear genes from the eggs of women who have faulty mitochondria into enucleated eggs donated by women whose mitochondria are healthy. This would result in an embryo containing nuclear genes (99.8 percent of a cell's genes) from the mother and father and mitochondrial genes (about 0.2 percent of a cell's genes) from the egg donor.

The FDA is supposed to decide on whether to approve therapies based on their safety and efficacy. That should be sufficient: If a treatment is safe and it works, why should the agency stop physicians and patients from using it? But the FDA decided that it wanted some moral guidance, so it asked the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) to convene a panel to advise it on the ethical issues involved.

The 12-member panel assembled by the IOM included several professional bioethicists, including Eric Juengst, who had objected 15 years earlier to Cohen's work, and Marcy Darnovsky, a bioluddite based at the Center for Genetics and Society. Their new report is out.

The good news is that the panel says that it's OK for researchers to go ahead to use MRT in cases where it is clear that women are at risk of transmitting particularly horrific forms of mitochondrial diseases. However, the panel recommended that the treatment be limited initially to creating male embryos only. This restriction means that the MRT treatment would not constitute heritable genetic modification (germline modification), since males do not pass along their mitochondria to their progeny. As researchers become more comfortable with MRT, the treatment could later be expanded to include female embryos.

The bad news is that Congress has banned MRT. After the IOM report was published, the FDA released a statement noting that Congress has forbidden the agency to spend any funds reviewing applications from researchers "in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification. As such, human subject research utilizing genetic modification of embryos for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease cannot be performed in the United States in FY 2016." On the face of it, it would seem that the agency could arguably get around this congressional ban by approving MRT treatments that create only male embryos that do not pass along donated mitochondria to subsequent generations. But the agency has evidently decided not to risk angering its congressional overlords.

What about privately funded MRT treatments? Because the FDA asserted its authority over mitochondrial transfer techniques back in 2001, that privately funded research in this area cannot go forward either.

Last year, the U.K. approved mitochondrial transfer treatments. So until Congress comes to its senses, perhaps American parents who wish to avoid the risk of passing along mitochondrial diseases to their children could seek treatment in British fertility clinics.

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  1. Perhaps this "ethics" argument is just highfalutin nonsense. Do many people even listen to bioethicists? They seem to have less clout than the clergy.

    1. Would it be ethical to feed bioethicists into a woodchipper, feet first?

      1. As long as it's feet first, we're not animals.

        1. They'll thrash about whether it's head first or feet first, but head first would get the job done quicker. Just a few lessons learned from Auschwitz...

      2. Depends on the Ethical Model used:

        Subjectivity?? Yep, totally ethical if you think so.
        Consequentialist?? Bioethicists cause more suffering than feeding them into a woodchipper would. Therefore Ethical.
        Deontology?? Is it your duty to save lives?? If you answered yes, it is ethical. If you have any duty-based reason to do so, it is ethical.
        Virtue Ethics?? No.
        Non-Aggression Principle?? As long as it is self defense.
        Bioethics Model?? We'll the word "bioethicist" sounds sciencey and a bit scary, so it must be a bad thing. Therefore killing them is Ethical!! But woodchippers are bad for Global Warming, probably. So you'll have to go green and use an old-fashion hatchet.

  2. Just keep in mind that people are creating human beings in laboratories while reserving the right to destroy those human beings if they are judged in any way defective.

    *That* is something of a key ethical issue, assuming of course you believe that living human beings are, *ipso facto,* persons under the Constitution.

    Give credit to Dr. Frankenstein - he only tried to destroy his creation when it became a murderer. The modern Frankensteins kill their human creations when they judge it convenient to do so.

    1. They totally murder the woman's quality of life!

      1. Like, totally. That belly fat can ruin your love life.

    2. FRANKEN BABIEZ!!!11!!!!1!!

    3. Well, I guess it is a good thing most of us do not make that assumption

    4. These arguments are really easy to make when you assume that the facts in dispute are completely settled in your favor.

      1. I'm more than happy to debate the question of whether there is a group of living human beings who are *not* persons entitled to basic rights under natural law and the Constitution.

        Which human beings belong to this group of non-persons?

        1. I assume that by "human being" you mean anything from a fertilized egg to an adult human person. In that case, I'd start by excluding those without brains. That takes care of the ethical problem of destroying embryos.

          We are never going to agree, so I won't go on much more. I think it's the mind that makes a person. The only reason we feel a need to keep the brain dead alive is because of the uncomfortable incongruity of something that looks like a person we once knew, but isn't.

        2. While early term zygotes, fetuses, etc are human, they are not human beings.

  3. ". Old-fashioned doctor-knows-best paternalism has all too often been replaced by bioethicist-knows-best paternalism?or worse yet, by panel-of-bioethicists-knows-best paternalism. "

    Has anyone ever met a self-described bioethicist worth listening to?

  4. I am totally in favor of a three parent ban....if one of them is STEVE SMITH, or Shriek.

  5. Does that mean it'd be ethical for me to make a baby with Ali Larter and Scarlett Johansson? Cause I'd be down for that

  6. Parasite Eve. Battle of the sexes' genes.

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  8. Jacques Cohen and his colleagues at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey transferred ooplasm containing mitochondria from healthy donor eggs to the eggs of women experiencing infertility. The experiments resulted in the births of 15 healthy babies.

    Those damned obstructionist Ultra-Conservative Catholics! When are they going to stop preventing the government from funding the research required to bring about the bio-medical revolution?

  9. I think bioethicists should learn ethics before they become bioethicists.

    1. Or biology. Or anything other than "Ban anything that sounds scary".

  10. Personally, I don't think any fertility drugs, IVF, surrogates or three parent babies should be allowed. Nature probably has a pretty good reason why some people can't reproduce or create healthy offspring who will live to reproduce on their own. We shouldn't be passing those genes on at all. It will weaken the species, eventually leading to ever-increasing difficulties reproducing. We may be able to remove a bad gene, but we still have no idea about 99% of what our genes actually do. Plenty of kids to adopt out there. That being said, the government can't and shouldn't really do anything about it.

    1. I said they shouldn't be allowed. I meant that they are very bad. The government shouldn't stop them from happening.

      1. They are correcting the defective gene. Do you think broken bones shouldn't be cast because fuck it, nature broke your arm with a it's divine gravity?

        1. Fixing my broken arm will definitely not lead to genetic defects in future generations, as this gene mixing might.
          Were there any multi-generational studies done with animals, prior to this being done on humans?
          Just because the parents are happy that this generation came out OK - and that's what having children is all about, making the parents feel fulfilled - has anyone thought about how it might effect future ones?
          Nah! The parents are the main reason to have kids - send them off to daycare and it will all be good.

          1. The whole point of this procedure is to completely eliminate the bad genes and replace them with good genes.

          2. "Fixing my broken arm will definitely not lead to genetic defects in future generations, as this gene mixing might."

            Nothing about the science this article contains could cause "genetic defects". You don't know anything about science, other than it is SCARY. So don't presume to talk on the subject.

            And be watch out for cows, because they've ALL been genetically modified by humans and are therefore scary mutant monsters.

    2. Nature doesn't have a reason for anything. Shit just happens how it happens.

      1. Some dude, named Darwin, might disagree.

        1. Some dude, named Darwin, might disagree.

          If it's the Darwin I think you are thinking of, he's dead, and no longer has an opinion.

          1. Yeah, because when someone dies their opinions mean nothing.
            My mistake.

        2. Uh, no. Darwin did not think evolution was teleological. That's pretty much the whole point of his work

        3. Darwin's theory on genetic variance actually WAS just "shit randomly happens yo". It wasn't until we threw Gregory Mendel's genetic theories into the mix that we got our current model.

        4. Nah.

          He described "how it happens", but he didn't ascribe a higher purpose or reason to "nature". He had God for that.

    3. "Plenty of kids to adopt out there."

      Nature left them parentless for a good reason, probably.

      1. Yeah. Nature wants them put out to die of exposure. And possibly return later to fuck their mothers.

        1. Izzis part of the Ram Johnson for Congress campaign?

    4. There is no "nature" that "allows" these troublesome mutations to occur. Rather, they are randomly created by radiation, by chemical reactions that occur "naturally" and from man-made sources, and probably from the normal mixing that occurs when a man and a woman breed to mix their genetic material.

      There is no "Nature" that cares whether the mutations are helpful or harmful. In a "natural situation", the helpful mutations will succeed, while the harmful mutations will fail. It is caring humans that have decided to prevent the harmful mutations from failing. We insist that harmful mutations should not result in a "failed person", so we make sure that the failed person does not die when "nature" would say that they should.

      If we are serious about letting nature take its course, we should not try to save the "failed people" who suffer from harmful genetic mutations. Similarly, if we are really serious about preventing the creation of more "failed people", and still want to do the "natural thing". then maybe everyone should be tested for genetic mutations, and those that have harmful mutations should not be allowed to breed. Because allowing them to breed is just another way to create more "failed people".

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  12. But, how do you know it's ethical until you consult religious experts?

    Assemble a council of priests, ministers, rabbis, clerics, bishops, imams, etc.

    We'll get to the bottom of this.

    1. "The OCB spread out through the worlds. Some interpreted this as a sign from God, an omen of unity. But the CET delegates when they returned to their respective congregations 18 of them were lynched within two months and 53 recanted within the year."

  13. I find it unethical to be playing G-d against mother nature, but then how many of my fellow Libertarians believe in a deity.

    1. Too many.

      1. But way fewer than in either of the big looter parties. The numbers are online at LP.org

    2. Unethical? By what standard?

    3. yeah, fuck medicine.

    4. Please close that fucking parentheses.

    5. I find it unethical based on my religious views to NOT take advantage of genetics. The prophets have commanded to seek the cures of disease whenever possible.

      Genetics isn't as complicated nor magical as you think it is. If genetic science is playing God, then you have a moral imperative to never own or benefit from dogs, cats, cattle, oxen, chickens, sheep, and any other domesticated animal.

  14. That the Federal Government, in its Infinite Majesty, should have total coercive control over human reproduction is the essence of Christian National Socialism clearly spelt out in "Nazi Ideology before 1933" from the U. of Texas press. The date, incidentally, was when Herbert Hoover's GOP handed the "new race" baton, from Herb's inaugural address, off to the leader of Germany's burgeoning party of "their brothers' keepers." Their (Hoover's and Hitler's) policies were opposed by bioethicist Ayn Rand, who personally observed political developments of 1926-1933.

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  16. No government appointed or any other committee should be potentially determining the evolution of the human species in this manner. Like abortion, this procedure is a personal choice. Taking vaccinations is also a personal choice, mandatory vaccinations are forcible penetration of another person's body, rape.

    The 'divinity' of nature is not the question. The motivations of the committee are. Eugenics most here I believe would agree, is a vile race driven philosophy of superiority. Technology is a two edged sword. Splitting the atom has both benefits and terribly negative costs. The advancement of technology will not cease in any event, individuals must be allowed to decide for themselves what of it they wish to utilize and what of it they do not want. As is quite evident, the negative consequences can and will impact even those who have rejected the potential benefits. Personally, I think playing with genetics is playing with fire. It will be played with however, and the potential negative consequences will impact my children and grandchildren.

    Just because humanity can do something does not mean it should do it. Supposedly these ethics committees are there to determine that, I prefer to determine that for myself.

    1. People like you should stay out of the discussion because you DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW GENES WORK.

      You think anything involving GENES that sounds remotely sciencey will result in "Bad Things" which you folks never seem to define but I suspect boils down to "crippling mutations".

      This one line alone shows you don't understand jack: "and the potential negative consequences will impact my children and grandchildren." No it won't!! You can't "catch" someone's genes, so even if GENES did work the way you thought and caused SCARY MUTATIONS, your children (who I assume would not have any genetic science done on them due to their Luddite parent) COULD IN NO WAY BE AFFECTED.

      Just because humanity can do something does not mean it should do it. Yes!! And just because you THINK you know how something works doesn't mean YOU should be consulted on what its potential applications are!!

      Genetics isn't SCARY MAGIC. And you apparently don't know how it works. If a caveman is scared by fire should we ban it just because he doesn't understand how it works??

  17. Hmmm. It sounds sciencey, involves GENES, therefore it is bad. As everyone knows, anything involving genes that is sciencey creates evil mutants always.

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