The Brave New World of Three-Parent Babies

Dr. Helen Watt discusses the objective morality of new scientific research in genetics and embryology.

(photo: Shutterstock)

VATICAN CITY — Scientists are developing medical techniques aimed at reducing rare hereditary disorders but which will result in a baby technically having “three parents.” The fertility treatment, known as mitochondrial transfer, tries to replace a faulty part of a mother‘s egg with healthy material from a donor, creating a “genetically modified child” with three biological parents.

Scientists are also experimenting with “pronuclear transfer” — a method of cloning from an IVF embryo. Bioethicists point out this would mean a child would be the offspring of parents who would, in effect, be destroyed embryos.

Although the techniques are currently prohibited in the United States, some related research is taking place.  The techniques are being actively researched in China and the United Kingdom.

According to Donum Vitae, a 1987 instruction from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Medical research must refrain from operations on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have given their free and informed consent to the procedure. It follows that all research, even when limited to the simple observation of the embryo, would become illicit were it to involve risk to the embryo’s physical integrity or life by reason of the methods used or the effects induced” (I, No. 4).

Embryology teaches that a human embryo ― from inception to eight weeks ― is an individual boy or girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal life-expectancy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person ― among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (No. 2270).

The Catechism also teaches that “It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material” (No. 2275).

To discuss in more detail these disturbing developments, Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin spoke with Dr. Helen Watt, senior research fellow of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England. Watt was attending a Sept. 18-22 Rome conference on maternal health hosted by MaterCare International.


What are your main bioethical concerns behind the “three-parent child” that you shared in your talk?

There are two extremely radical and very worrying techniques which have just been given the green light in Britain. These techniques are designed to help women at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease [a group of disorders caused by cell mutations] via faulty mitochondrial genes outside the nucleus of their eggs. The aim is to help these women have children to whom they will have some kind of genetic connection — as opposed to their accepting the risk, remaining childless or choosing adoption, for example.

Both techniques create genetically modified children and will affect all the descendants of those created, in ways that could be very dangerous. But they’re also morally wrong in other ways. Because most genes are in the nucleus of our cells, supporters of the techniques argue that any change involving mitochondrial genes outside the nucleus will not affect parenthood. However, this is not the case.

One technique moves genetic material from the egg of one woman to the egg of a donor, before fertilizing with sperm the combination egg in vitro to produce a “three-parent baby.” The egg donor becomes a partial genetic mother of a child she will not be involved with in any way. This goes against what parenthood should be all about: unconditional sexual receiving, not producing, of a child to whom both parents are committed and who is related to them and them alone. But the other technique, pronuclear transfer, is even worse: It is a form of cloning from an IVF embryo, with the aim of bringing the new clone embryo to birth.


You said in your talk that human cloning is now a reality. What’s been happening in that area and what are the ethical implications?

Supporters of pronuclear transfer usually deny that the procedure creates a human clone. Dolly the Sheep was cloned from an adult, and that’s what we normally think of when we think of cloning. However, it’s also possible to clone from an embryo, including an embryo who is so young that it just consists of a single cell. In the very young embryo, the genetic material from the father is still separate from the genetic material from the mother.

In pronuclear transfer, the two “pronuclei” or packages containing this genetic material are removed from a deliberately created IVF embryo of the woman at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease. This kills the woman’s embryo. A second embryo from an egg donor is also killed, when its own pronuclei are removed to make room for those of the first embryo. The first embryo’s pronuclei are inserted, and a third embryo is created who will be a clone of the first embryo, while inheriting all the surrounding parts, including the healthy mitochondria, from the second embryo. So two embryos destroyed — including one perfectly healthy embryo — to create a third, clone embryo.

This is cloning for birth — it’s just that we’re cloning not from an adult but from an embryo who is destroyed in the process. That embryo and the egg donor’s embryo are used, with their parents’ permission, as mere raw material for the clone.

Has science therefore now created the possibility of having parents who are embryos?

I’m not sure I’d agree that the two destroyed embryos are parents of the clone. I think I’d prefer to say that, very sadly, the clone child will have no genetic parents: just precursors who were killed for spare parts to create him or her. The child owes his or her life to the deliberate destruction of two other human beings, who leave a legacy in every one of that child’s cells. What this will do to the child psychologically is something we can only guess at.

What is the best pragmatic way for Catholics to fight against these developments in your view?

It’s important for Catholics to keep themselves informed on these issues, so they can lobby against mitochondrial replacement, write clear and helpful letters to newspapers, blog entries etc. Catholics should also be aware that women — particularly young women in college — are being targeted as egg donors, whether to create embryos for infertile couples or for use in experimentation. Young women should be warned about the risks of egg donation to their health, and more importantly, of the fact that their fertility is a gift worth saving for sexual conception in marriage, where both partners commit permanently to each other and their children.

Women having fertility treatments such as IVF are also sometimes invited to donate ‘spare’ embryos for destructive research, and now with mitochondrial replacement, for destructive techniques for creating new embryos. So it’s crucial that Catholics (and others) publicize ethical fertility treatments such as NaProTechnology, and show solidarity with those — including fellow-parishioners — who may be struggling with fertility problems and tempted to go down the IVF route.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to EWTN News Nightly.