In the November 2012 elections, voters of Washington state had to decide on Initiative 522. I-522 would require food sold in the state to be labeled if any of its components were produced by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Proponents made a necessary distinction between selectively bred plants and animals and those that are GMOs. Selective breeding has been standard practice in agriculture since man began herding animals and growing crops. GMO plants and animals are those that have a genetic makeup that would not occur naturally through normal breeding. For example, a plant that has had a gene inserted that gives it resistance to weed killer and a cow that has been cloned so it is immune to mad-cow disease are GMOs.
It was a contentious battle, with supporters of I-522 telling consumers that genetic engineering has unintended consequences and that ingesting GMO products may make us sick. Proponents insisted that we have a right to know what is in our food.
Ads against I-522 did not suggest food made from GMOs was perfectly safe or that the concerns of food purists were unfounded. The opposition focused on the wording of the initiative and on the impact labeling would have on the price of food.
I-522 was defeated with 45% of voters supporting the initiative and 55% opposed. A similar initiative in California, Proposition 37, also did not pass. In 2012, California voters were 49% in support of labeling food made from GMOs; 51% voted against Prop. 37.
Analyzing these votes, it is apparent that nearly half of the voting residents in California and Washington are concerned about eating GMOs and want to be informed about which foods contain GMO products. A poll conducted by ABC News found that 65% of Americans either believe GMOs are unsafe to eat or are unsure about their safety, and 93% of those polled believe that the government should require labeling.
At the same time, in another West Coast state, genetically modified human embryos are being made with little objection from the general public.
In the last year, the Oregon Health and Science University announced that not only has it been successful in cloning human embryos and extracting embryonic stem cells, but also succeeded in creating embryos with three genetic parents.
Both of these "breakthroughs" created genetically modified human beings. Both of these techniques are being pursued for therapeutic ends — in other words, to improve human health.
We are told the intent of cloning embryos is to obtain embryonic stem cells that are a "genetic match" to a patient. Not only is this to provide cells for research, but researchers hope these cells will be suitable for treating diseases in the patient whose cells are cloned.
What most people do not know is that these cloned embryos are not a perfect genetic match. The egg used to clone the embryo contains DNA from the woman who donated it. This DNA is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA. So cloned embryos, and the stem cells they produce, are the very definition of "genetically modified," with nuclear DNA from the patient and mtDNA from the woman who donated the egg.
The three-parent embryos are also genetically modified. These embryos are created to "cure" mitochondrial disease. We get our mitochondria, organelles in our cells that produce energy, solely from our mothers. A woman with a mutation in her mtDNA cannot help but pass that mutation onto her children.
In the three-parent technique, also called "mitochondrial replacement" or "maternal spindle transfer," a donor egg’s nucleus is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a woman with mitochondrial disease. That genetically engineered egg is then fertilized with sperm, creating an embryo that has genetic material from three persons: mtDNA from the donor and nuclear DNA contributed by the parents.
The three-parent technique is particularly troubling because it does not just modify the resulting embryo; the modification will extend to further generations. This is what is called a germ-line modification: one that will be incorporated into egg and sperms cells and passed onto future offspring. Unlike the United States, many other countries have laws prohibiting germ-line modifications in humans.
The Church is against both human cloning and the three-parent technique, primarily because they produce human life in a dish, outside the embrace of husband and wife, but also because they produce germ-line modifications.
Dignitas Personae (26) states that, "in the current state of research," all germ-line genetic engineering is "morally illicit."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering allowing American in vitro fertilization clinics to bring to trial the three-parent technique for couples where the mother has mitochondrial disease. The United Kingdom’s body that regulates the fertility industry, the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA), has already recommended that British law be changed to allow the three-parent technique in Britain. If the FDA follows the HFEA’s lead, fertility clinics in the U.S. will be allowed to create genetically modified children.
The average citizen likely assumes that the safety of the three-parent technique has been thoroughly studied and found to be safe for use in humans. The reality is something different.
In a recent paper in Science, researchers revealed that, so far, the only other primates created with this technique are four macaques that have only reached three years of age and have not produced another generation. Other animal models show that mtDNA-nuclear DNA mismatch has some serious effects that may not be apparent until adulthood. The researchers were clear that "it is premature to move this technology into the clinic at this stage."
And yet many in this country and abroad are ready to move forward with mitochondrial replacement and create children with three genetic parents. Many of the same people support cloning human embryos to obtain stem cells — both in the name of improving human health.
So we live in a society where people are wary of eating meat or drinking milk from a cloned cow but support cloning human embryos (using the very same technique) with the hope of producing stem cells for treatments. We as a society are suspicious about genetically modified food but are indifferent to genetically modified children.
What a colossal disconnect! The logic seems to be: GM plants and animals: bad; GM humans: good.
How did this disconnect materialize? Is this yet another manifestation of "reproductive rights" and the abortion culture? Is this the fruit of the modern confusion surrounding our own reproduction? Dogs gestate baby dogs. Horses gestate baby horses. But, as society likes to say, humans gestate "blobs of tissue." That is, except when the blob of tissue is desperately wanted — then we can go to dangerous experimental lengths to make more.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that genetically modified humans are on the horizon. The only way to prevent the genetic modification of the next generation is to engage the public. Society already perceives that genetically modifying plants and animals may not be the healthiest for humans or the environment.
If GMOs in our food make us uneasy, then genetically modifying our offspring should be unthinkable.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical
in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics on
her blog Mary Meets Dolly (MaryMeetsDolly.com).