Three-Parent Children, Germ-line Gene Manipulation and Designer Humans

Today’s vote in Parliament in favour of allowing three parent children makes the UK the first country to cross internationally respected bioethical red lines. It does so first by allowing the creation of human beings using DNA from three human beings and secondly, by opening the door to germ-line gene modification. By altering the very make-up of the human species, the technique provokes a global race to manufacture the bio-characteristics of the human person by germ-line gene manipulation.

While proponents recommend the technique as a means of allowing people with diseases to replace faulty DNA with the DNA of altogether new third parties who are neither mother nor father of the child, the procedure crosses new ethical lines by allowing for the first time multiple bio-parents thereby opening the door to germ-line gene modification and all-out bio-technological control of a person’s characteristics.

Because the procedure involves taking a mother’s eggs and a donor egg, and replacing the defective mitochondria of one with the healthy mitochondria of the other, the whole procedure opens the door to germ-line gene manipulation. In short Britain is crossing an internationally respected prohibition on multiplying bio-parents and provoking a new biotechnological race to create human beings in ever more dubious ways. The implications for the people created could not be more profound.

The current international bioethical consensus draws red lines with the modification of early embryos so as to prevent the manipulation of the characteristics of future children. Proponents of the three parent DNA procedure argue that these concerns do not apply to modifications of mitochondrial DNA. This they regard as an insignificant part of the human genome that does not affect a person’s identity. This however is far from the truth. The replaced DNA controls development and metabolism and is a significant feature of the human individual. It also opens the door to all-out germ-line gene manipulation.

The UK has a history of crossing international bioethical red lines whilst denying the products of their biotechnical labours, i.e. the people created, fundamental information and access to their biological kin. Existing people born of the fertility industry have few rights. When they come forward they are routinely ignored, marginalised or ridiculed. Those born of donor conception are denied information that they are donor conceived so that they are able to discover their true biological identity, medical inheritance, race and kin. Those who have fought in the courts to discover their identity in 2003 were fobbed off with the promise of a voluntary DNA register. Rose v Secretary of State for Health and the HFEA [2002] EWHC 1593. This device proved too successful. It became apparent that many of those who placed their DNA on the register were all related. They all shared the same biological father. The impact of this on a person’s sense of self should not be underestimated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what with the disturbing revelations of mass bio-parenting by single donors over decades, the voluntary register has now been wound down and is no longer available to people seeking to discover their biological parents and kin. Scant regard is paid to people born of these technologies. Their interests are nowhere considered in the race to alter the very genetic make-up of the human species.

In an effort to allow this procedure, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) repeats the claim that 1 in 200 children is born each year with a form of mitochondrial disease. In fact only 1 in 5,000 (R. H. Haas et al. Pediatrics 120;1326–1333; 2007) appears to suffer in this way. Further, of those who have DNA defects, a good proportion of them have defects in both nuclear as well as mitochondrial DNA. What this suggests is that mitochondrial replacement would not, in any case, assist them all and still less answer the ethical concerns about multi-bio-parenting. There are ongoing safety concerns about the procedure. Evidence from early stage embryos cannot predict what it will mean for children created by such means. The HFEA, initially required that pro-nuclear transfer, be tested in non-human primates. When US researchers found the technique to be unsuccessful in macaques the condition was abandoned. The HFEA assures us that there is widespread consent to the procedure. There is no such thing. A publically conducted survey of 1,800 respondents found that a majority opposed mitochondrial replacement. The workshops (advertised amongst those favourable to the procedures) with groups of 30 select people, public opinion surveys, small focus groups and meetings with proponents of the new eugenics, are far from open and informed public consultation exercises.

As with other ethically suspect industries, like the slave trade, those with important evidence about the trade are ignored and marginalised. Their voice barely rates a mention in the race to open new markets for ever more manufactured and designed human beings. Once a child’s characteristics can be chosen, rest assured a market will emerge in bio-Barbies and bio-Kens, a functional feature of the manufacturing capacities of the Western world.
Indeed this control over human characteristics is precisely what motivates the current race towards multiple bio-parents. While design happens in a crude manner already with commissioning parties choosing the characteristics of the gamete donor, the child is still guaranteed one bio-father and one bio-mother. This legal guarantee disappeared today.

Today’s development introduces entirely new aspects of human genetic design and invites a whole new human design industry. Marcy Darnovsky writes in Nature ( M. Darnovsky, “A Slippery Slope to Human Germ-Line Modification’ 144 (2013) Nature 127) that “The question raised by these proposals is whether a risky technique, which would at best benefit a small number of women, justifies shredding a global agreement with profound significance for the human future.”

Given the UK’s decision to trigger an biotech industry in designing the human being, a thing that has radical implications for the human species, it is time for an international moratorium on technologies that introduce the possibility of human germ-line gene manipulation so that the implications for the species as well as the individuals created can be considered.