I’ve spent the last decade writing and speaking about the remarkable and terrifying world of biotechnology from a Catholic perspective. Many times I’ve felt like Frodo Baggins at the gates of Mordor, looking upon Mt. Doom with despair and dread.
I’ve never felt this more acutely than in the past few months. A series of recent headlines have renewed my sense of hopelessness in the face of the never-ending assault on the dignity of human life by modern biotechnology.
The gloom began to settle when it was revealed that a Swedish scientist is editing the DNA of healthy human embryos. Fredrik Lanner, a developmental biologist, is using a new gene-editing technique called CRISPR to disable some genes in healthy human embryos to see how those genes affect development. He and his team are intentionally modifying otherwise healthy IVF embryos so they cannot develop properly.
An in-depth story by NPR reveals that while the reporter was observing the genetic manipulation of five donated IVF embryos, one didn’t survive the thawing process and one perished after being injected with the experimental gene-editing tool. Of the three who survived, one continued to divide, but not for long. All of the embryos were to be destroyed before they are 15 days old, as the law in Sweden dictates. Lanner insists that his research is critical to understanding human development, which, in turn, will shed light on infertility and disease.
Lanner’s work makes many ethicists and scientists extremely nervous. Jennifer Doudna, the co-inventor of CRISPR, along with other heavy-hitting scientists, have called for a voluntary moratorium on any editing of human embryos for fear that it will lead to the creation of genetically modified children. Marcy Darnovsky, of the left-leaning Center for Genetics and Society, explains why she and her group have been so vocal in their opposition to the modification of human embryos. She told NPR: “The production of genetically modified human embryos is actually quite dangerous. ... When you’re editing the genes of human embryos, that means you’re changing the genes of every cell in the bodies of every offspring, every future generation of that human being. So these are permanent and probably irreversible changes that we just don’t know what they would mean.”
Then came the revelation that a U.S. doctor traveled to Mexico to create the first baby intentionally engineered to have three genetic parents. This technique, misnamed “mitochondrial replacement” or MR, seeks to eliminate the transmission of genetic disease through the mitochondria. Mitochondria are small but abundant organelles outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm of our cells that make energy. They have their own DNA called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA solely from our mothers. A woman who carries a deleterious mutation in her mtDNA cannot help but pass that on to her offspring.
There are various MR techniques that “replace” the mitochondria of a woman with mitochondrial disease with the mitochondria of a donor female in the IVF process. Essentially, MR creates a genetically altered embryo with the genetic material from three people, one man and two women.
MR had only undergone limited study in primates before getting approval in the United Kingdom for use in fertility clinics to make babies. Little is known about the complex communication between the DNA in the nucleus and the DNA in the mitochondria, and so there is little data on the effects of a mismatch between the nuclear DNA and mtDNA.
Also in all MR, it’s the nucleus that’s being moved from cell to cell, not the mitochondria — which is why “mitochondrial replacement” is such a misnomer. This makes MR a cousin to cloning, which also transplants the nucleus of one cell into another to make a new organism. MR brings with it many of the same risks. Scientists are concerned about the health of the resulting children.
In an open letter to the U.K. Parliament, Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a vocal American stem-cell researcher, warned: “Even if, hypothetically, this technology might help avoid some people from having mitochondrial disorders (and that’s a big if), the bottom line is that there is an equal or arguably greater chance that it will tragically produce very ill or deceased babies.”
MR is also a germ-line genetic modification, which means that any girl born with this technique will pass her genetic modification on to her children.
A recent review in Nature reveals that MR leaves a tiny percentage of mutant mitochondria behind, and sometimes the mutant mitochondria rapidly divide and overtake the healthy mitochondria. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at the Oregon Health and Science University, reported a 15% failure rate where mitochondrial defects returned. Mitalipov told NPR, “That original, maternal mitochondrial DNA took over, and it was pretty drastic. There was less than 1% of the original maternal mitochondrial DNA present after replacement with donor DNA and before fertilization, and yet it took over the whole cell later.” University of California San Francisco professor Patrick O’Farrell suggests that mutant mitochondria can resurge at any time in a developing three-parent child or even resurface in future generations.
For all these reasons, MR is not yet approved by the FDA in the United States, and may never be. So, when a Jordanian woman with mitochondrial disease wanted to have a child using MR, John Zhang, from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City, had to perform the procedure in Mexico. He created five embryos, and, according to NewScientist.com, only one developed normally. That child is now 9 months old.
Zhang went to Mexico because, he said, “there are no rules,” and yet he insists he did the safe and ethical thing in the absence of any medical or ethical oversight. In an ironic twist, the couple is Muslim and so chose the MR technique that wouldn’t destroy existing embryos. But it was clear that only male embryos would be transferred for gestation, because boys can’t pass on the genetic modification. What happened to the other four embryos, however? Were they destroyed, discarded or frozen? If they were females, would they have been destroyed anyway to make sure they couldn’t pass on any ill effects?
Darnovsky called this “rogue experimentation” and added, “No researcher or doctor has the right to flout agreed-upon rules and make up their own. This is an irresponsible and unethical act.”
Knoepfler responded to the news by reminding us that “this is a living human experiment that is going to unfold over years and decades. It is also worth noting that this child is a genetically modified human being as a result of this technique.”
Of course, these are happenings to despair of — not only because of the sheer disregard for the sanctity of individual human lives, but because of the breakneck speed at which scientists are kicking ethical lines farther and farther down the road like a tin can. All the while, they insist that it’s for the good of humanity. I wonder: How can we treat individual members of the human species so callously and then, at the same time, say it’s for the good of the whole human race?
I fear there is no line we won’t cross; no ethical boundary we won’t tear down in the name of science.
On a daily basis, I’m surrounded by science and scientists. Often, their response to this madness is that it’s going to happen anyway, and there’s no way to stop it, which implies we must go along to get along — all in the name of progress.
If I am Frodo, then they and the rest of society are Saruman — giving in to the despair and making a deal with Sauron. In the film version of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman says to Gandalf: “Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. We must join with him, Gandalf. We must join with Sauron. It would be wise, my friend.”
Gandalf replies, “Tell me, ‘friend,’ when did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?”
Indeed. When did science abandon reason for madness, ethics for recklessness?
So what shall we do? If we succumb to despair, we become like Saruman.
We always have prayer. It’s time to add human embryonic research and germ-line human genetic engineering to our list of life issues that we pray about. It doesn’t matter whether we understand the finer points of the science or not. Praying for an end to abortion and assisted suicide is no longer enough.
In addition to prayer, there are other things we can do. The first is to vote pro-life at every level of government, from city council to state assemblymen. Being pro-life isn’t just about abortion, however. It’s about protecting the sanctity of life from the beginning to the end. Pro-life legislators, even if they cannot overturn Roe v. Wade, can effect local and state laws and steer funding away from unethical research.
Secondly, we must fight for conscience rights for medical professionals. I envision a not-so-far-off world where doctors are forced into making genetically engineered embryos and bringing these children to term simply because parents claim it’s their “reproductive right” to have the children of their design. Without conscience rights, unethical experimentation on the next generation will be rampant and unchecked.
We must, however, always have hope. When staring down the juggernaut that is modern biotechnology, I always remember Frodo Baggins. When he was faced with the seemingly impossible task of taking the One Ring to Mordor, instead of shying away because it was too hard, he said: “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”
Rebecca Taylor is a
clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics on her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.