Three-parent babies – Redesigning Nature

Robert Henderson

The House of Commons has voted  382 in favour to 128 against to allow babies with genetic material from three people to be born.  Scientists will be able to replace an egg’s defective mitochondrial  DNA with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a female donor’s egg to eliminate genetically  determined diseases such as muscular dystrophy.  This is germline  gene therapy which results in the  genetic alteration being passed on to any  children and their descendants. Britain is the  first country to legalise the procedure.

If it was merely a question  that  the technique  will be used to prevent children  being born without a serious disabling disease it would be emotionally  very difficult to argue against it simply because of the tremendous suffering  which  such diseases cause for both the children themselves and their families , whose lives are often turned upside down with the burden of caring with which they  are left.  Nonetheless, there are possible  biological dangers of genetic manipulation because material is being introduced into a body which is foreign to it. They could perhaps cause cancerous tumours or result in rejection by the immune system.

The thin edge of the wedge

It is a certainty that if three-parent children are allowed it will be the thin end of the wedge which leads  to much more radical alterations of a child’s genome. If gene replacement therapy is deemed ethically acceptable for preventing certain  inherited diseases,  there could be no absolute  moral bar to any manipulation of genes, whether this is  either be through the introduction of genetic material from one or more persons other than the parents into the egg or sperm or to methods of  genetic engineering of humans  which do not require  the introduction of genetic material from a person who is not one of the parents.  Moreover, it is probable that in the not too far distant future the manipulation of  a person’s genes will be done either by direct restructuring of the person’s genetic material (perhaps through the   re-writing of the code of a faulty gene) or the introduction of genetic material not taken from a human  being  but created artificially in a laboratory.

The effect on the children born of genetic manipulation.

Even at its most basic, such as the proposed replacement of mitochondrial DNA to prevent diseases such a muscular dystrophy,  is it not likely that a  child born from the procedure will feel  a freak knowing that they are the product of three people’s DNA, and have serious doubts  about their identity?  Could they ever  have the same relationship with their parents as a child conceived naturally?  That is debatable because the recipient of the replacement DNA  to correct a genetically determined illness might well view it simply as being equivalent to a transplant of a cornea or heart, although there would be the difference that the replacement DNA would be handed down the generations if the person receiving it had children.

But what if  the genetic modification was much more radical, for example,  determining elements of personality, intellect and physical appearance ? That would be much more  likely  to cause psychological disturbance in both the child and the parents.     The child might feel they were not people in their own right but simply the toys of their parents, machines cut to a template consciously planned by another.  If a child’s  life  did not go well,  would not they be inclined to blame their parents for making the genetic choices that they did?   Sadly, if genetically altered children do  blame the parents,  then it is all too easy to imagine that children would sue their parents for making what the children deemed to be bad choices.

The effect on the parents of children born of genetic manipulation

The parents  could also have psychological issues. It is one thing having a child naturally who is born disabled, deformed or just   turns out to be a disappointment in some way, quite another to have a child who disappoints after the parents have made decisions which helped  to shape the child’s physical and mental  qualities.  The parents would run the  risk of  not only being disappointed ,but of knowing they were in part responsible for what the child was, something  which could  engender either feelings of guilt or the anger which can arise when someone knows they are responsible for something but cannot accept that reality. Again, the law could come into play with parents suing the scientists who had performed the genetic manipulation for misleading them.

The creation of a genetic divide in a society

If a society leaves genetic manipulation to the market with only those with the means to afford it receiving the manipulation, the difference  between the haves and have-nots  could become  so large that there were objectively   two  grades  of human beings in the society.   The mere fact that some were genetically engineered and some were not could and probably would  result in an elite which was biologically as well as materially and intellectually different from those who had undergone genetic manipulation, a difference which could translate into a caste system with the genetically manipulated only breeding amongst themselves .   An alternative scenario could be the genetically unaltered have-nots – who would be in the large majority – seeing the elite as other than human and slaughtering them without compunction.

State interference

Would governments be able to resist insisting that characteristics such as intelligence were enhanced by the genetic manipulation  of all members of a society whether or not the parents wanted it?  A  dictatorship  could insist on certain characteristics being enhanced in all their population. Alternatively, the could deny such  genetic manipulation to all but those with power . A third possibility would be, in Brave New World style,  to use the technology  to have people genetically altered so that there were people with different abilities and personality traits produced in different quantities.

Even a representative democracy  might find itself driven to act in such an authoritarian way if it was feared that the society could not compete with other societies which adopted government inspired genetic changes.

Genetic manipulation after conception

Genetic manipulation will not stop at point of conception.   As the technology advances we can expect to see opportunities for much genetic manipulation from the foetus to the aged human. However, this would be  Somatic gene therapy which would be introduced into non-sex cells and would not , unlike germline gene therapy, become part of the person’s genome and consequently could not be passed on to any children or their descendants.

In the case of those old enough to give their consent to somatic gene manipulation  much of the psychological problem which exists with genetic manipulation of the sperm and egg is removed because adults, unless they are mentally handicapped or living in a society where the state forces all to undergo such procedures, they will be able to make the decision for themselves as to whether they have  such a procedure.  Even if they do not like the result of their gene manipulation  they would  not be in a worse psychological situation than someone who has had a replacement organ or plastic surgery which does not give them what they anticipated.

The dangers of a rapid genetic alteration within a population

Rapidly changing the proportions of  characteristics in  a population could  damage the viability of the society. Very little is understood about the importance of the distribution of different qualities and abilities within  a society. Suppose a society opts to rapidly increase the IQ of its people.  A society of highly intelligent people might not work because homo sapiens naturally forms hierarchies and if everyone is highly intelligent this might  make the creation of a stable hierarchy impossible.  .  Or suppose personality traits such as aggression, caution and extroversion could be  manipulated. If the choice was left to parents the favouring of one of such traits might make a society too aggressive or too placid.

What can be done to guard against the worst possibilities?

As genetic manipulation of humans will undoubtedly spread rapidly throughout the world, there will  be no realistic way of preventing  individuals from availing themselves of the technology short of closing the borders and allowing no one to travel out of the country to have the manipulation done abroad with regular checks on every individual to make sure there was no illegal operations being done

If gene manipulation  is banned in one country, but foreign travel is not, banned those  who can afford it and think it worthwhile will go abroad to have the procedure . It would be  possible for a country to make genetic manipulation a  crime regardless of where the act took place.  But that would open up a can of worms. The manipulation would have already have taken place.  The altered human being, whether child or adult,  would exist.  In the case of a child,  the individual would not have broken the law because the decision to have the procedure would not have been theirs. What would the state do?  Imprison for life every adult who had broken the law? Take every genetically altered child into care?   A ban on individuals seeking  gene manipulation would be a non-starter.  If it is widely seen a desirable thing, the only thing which might stop gene manipulation  would be a high proportion of procedures resulting in serious problems such as tumours or deformities dissuading most of the public against it.

Guarding against state enforced gene manipulation is a more practical proposition, but only  in countries with some regard for constitutionality and the law in general. It would be possible for such countries to include in their constitutions absolute bars on any state imposed genetic manipulation.

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