Commentary by Jessica Nickel
What do you think of when you picture your future family? What will your children look like? Will they be talented athletes, musicians or artists? As we all know, things often do not turn out how we planned. But imagine that you were given the ability to choose the traits that your children will have. If you think that this concept exists only in the world of science fiction, you are mistaken.
An article issued by the BBC last week reported that the U.K. is on the brink of approving laws that would permit the creation of embryos using the DNA of three people. As with most medical research, this idea emerged from ‘good’ intentions. The BBC article spoke about Sharon Bernardi, a woman who lost seven children to a disease for which she is a carrier. The gene Bernardi carries produces defective mitochondria in her reproductive cells. Consequently, any children Bernardi conceives have defective mitochondria in nearly every cell in their bodies. Functionally, this results in conditions such as brain damage, blindness, heart failure and ultimately, death.
For Bernardi, this modified approach to in vitro fertilization could enable her to give birth to a healthy baby. In order for this to occur, doctors would need the ovum and sperm from Bernardi and her husband, as well as a donor ovum. Doctors would remove the nuclei from both ova, placing Bernardi’s nuclei into the donor’s ovum. The ovum would then be fertilized using the husband’s sperm as with normal IVF. The resulting embryo would contain less than .001 percent genetic material from the third party. In addition, the defective gene would be completely eliminated from all future generations.
This research, if continued, could mean that many other inherited diseases have the potential to become a feature of human medical history and not its future. Diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, all of which are horrible and even deadly, could join smallpox and the bubonic plague on the list of eradicated diseases.
Theoretically speaking, this is a wonderful proposal and a blessing to so many couples who have suffered the loss of a child to a genetic disease. I myself have a sister with a genetically inherited disease that I would love to have eliminated, but I have to call into question the ethics behind this type of research. The Catholic Church has already declared its opposition to this method of IVF on the grounds that it is unnatural and interferes with God’s true intentions for human kind.
My own opinion on this is only loosely based on the Church’s. I am skeptical that this kind of research will not cease with diseases. Genetics companies such as the California-based 23andMe provide services that allow parents to have their genetic codes analyzed to identify desired traits for their offspring, and the company has been the subject of controversy for this on more than one occasion. With genetic modifications of this caliber, legalized designer babies are not only possible, but likely. Parents will have access to services that would provide them with a child produced to their exact desires.
To me, this is fundamentally unethical. It not only allows humans to play God on an entirely new level, but it gives parents an unprecedented amount of control over their children. Psychologists have found that when parents impose their wishes, wants and desires on their children without taking the child’s opinion into account, the result is almost always tragic. The children rebel, have low self-esteem and resent their parents. In these cases, the parents have to at least wait until the child is born before they can begin taking control of the direction of the child’s life. Conversely, designer babies would be under the complete control of their parents from fertilization. Parents would create their “perfect child” not only in the physical sense, but also where talents, interests and achievements are concerned.
Imagine the amount of pressure such a child would be under to live up to his or her parents’ strict and possibly unrealistic expectations. I personally believe that this borders on the line of abusive. In a perfect world, we would not need to ponder the ethical considerations of medical research; however, we do not live in a perfect world, and not every person is endowed with a strong moral guide. If modified IVF is going to continue to be researched and developed, scientists need to be cautious that they do not create a future that is darker rather than brighter.
Feb. 13, 2015