The Magazine

And Baby Makes Four

Is it ethical to make three-parent babies?

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By BRENDAN P. FOHT
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There is one other frequently raised objection to these technologies that seems misguided, namely, that they are a form of “genetic engineering” or, as bioethicist Margaret Somerville put it in a column for the Ottawa Citizen, that they would be a form of inheritable genetic engineering. Children who are created using these methods would pass their modified genes on to their children. Rather than worrying about whether using a new technology might give future generations different genetic characteristics than they would otherwise have inherited, we should be concerned about the way genetic engineering can alter the relationship between the generations from one of parents accepting the novelty and spontaneous uniqueness of their children to one where parents use biotechnology to choose and control the biological nature of their children.

That said, it is far from clear that these new techniques enable such morally problematic technological mastery. In a debate held earlier this year on whether genetic engineering should be prohibited, Duke law professor Nita Farahany argued that these new techniques will not lead “to a dystopia of designing perfect babies,” emphasizing that they would simply prevent the transmission of various disease-causing genes to give parents healthy children. The aim of giving parents babies that are genetically related to them but free of debilitating heritable diseases is perfectly understandable, and not one that should be confused with the morally twisted aims of eugenics or of the specter of “designer babies.”

Ironically, Farahany’s opponents in the debate, who argued that genetic engineering should be prohibited, pointed to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) as a morally acceptable alternative. PGD allows doctors and parents to test embryos prior to implanting them, allowing them to select those with the “best” genes. For the most part, PGD aims simply to give parents children who are healthy, rather than perfectly designed. But PGD can also be used to select for any number of genetic traits, and is often used to select the sex of the embryo, a clear case of using technology to control important biological characteristics of the next generation.

And even beyond technologies like PGD, some forms of genetic control are already exercised through existing reproductive technologies and practices, such as finding and paying young women with high SAT scores for their eggs. But the fact that our society already engages in forms of genetic control that are arguably more serious and problematic than what these new procedures would offer does not, of course, justify embarking on these experimental reproductive technologies. Rather, the prospect of genetic engineering that these new ways of manipulating embryos and their DNA raise helps us to see what is morally problematic in the existing technologies.

 Let’s return to the most shocking aspect of these techniques, the fact that they create children with three parents. Defenders may say we already do something similar with egg and embryo donation or in surrogacy arrangements. In these cases, the child has a genetic mother and a genetic father but also a gestational mother, who carries the child to term but is not genetically related. But even though gestation is not a form of genetic parenthood, it is hard to deny that being pregnant for nine months creates an important biological, not to say emotional and personal, tie with the child.


Again, it would seem that we have come to accept arrangements that split apart the various biological and social aspects of parenthood, and that deliberately create families where children will never know one or both of their genetic parents. But do these practices justify carving up parenthood into even finer parts with these new methods that create three-parent embryos? 

Perhaps the disquiet we feel when we hear about the creation of embryos with three parents should lead us to reconsider whether these other technological distortions were morally justifiable in the first place. Evidence collected in a 2010 report from the Institute for American Values suggests that donor-conceived children may experience serious emotional suffering as a result of the circumstances of their conception and the confusion surrounding their identity.

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