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Three-parent babies a slippery slope

February 5, 2015

On Tuesday, Britain voted in favour of becoming the first country to allow a so-called “three-parent” in vitro fertilization technique to prevent some inherited incurable diseases. The babies would be born from genetically modified embryos, which would have DNA from a mother, a father and a female donor. The procedure would help families with mitochondrial diseases, incurable conditions passed down the maternal line that affect around one in 6,500 children worldwide. The decision has sparked a fierce ethical debate. Royal Roads Prof. Eva Malisius has researched the subject and says allowing three-parent babies is a potentially dangerous decision when looking at the wider ethical context and impact of technological advances. Here, she explains what the decision means for our future.

What did you explore in your research on three-parent babies?

I researched the universal norms underlying the human biotechnology debate, specifically the right to life and human dignity, as well the differences in regulation at the national, European and international levels. Generally, the international community is divided on whether human biotechnology and specifically cloning for research and therapeutic purposes should be pursued or prohibited. While there is general agreement that human reproductive cloning is outside what is considered ethically acceptable, this does not translate into a clear approach and regulation. The world is pretty much divided between those seeking to further pursue human cloning for research and therapeutic purposes and those insisting that all types of human cloning must be banned. Britain has been a strong advocate in favour of such research, and issued licences for human cloning for research purposes into diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Thus the three-parent baby is merely a logical next step in progressive human biotechnology and assisted reproductive – after all, the first IVF baby was born in Britain in 1978. Other countries oppose any such research as a violation of human dignity, as it involves the creation (and possibly destruction) of human embryos and thereby human life. 

Where does Canada stand on this debate?

Canadian law largely prohibits any conduct and research involving the creation and manipulation of human embryos and stem cells using cloning technology, explicitly highlighting concerns and unknown impact on future generations. While the three-parent baby is not directly related to human cloning, the underlying technology required is largely identical. In other words, with the permission to produce three-parent babies, Britain will open the doors for human reproductive cloning.

What are your concerns with allowing three-parent babies?

The “slippery slope” of human biotechnology continues to erode the boundaries of what we consider acceptable and within the context of universal norms, most specifically human dignity. Certainly the three-parent baby is an example of balancing the interest of the community and the dignity of the individual, including unborn life. We will not know about the impact of a three-parent baby for at least one generation. Therefore my biggest concern is that we are not seeing more debates about these kinds of topics. Rather than making informed decisions as a global community, we are letting things happen: we should engage in debates on how we wish to balance what is technically possible with what is ethically acceptable. The international community generally considers the creation of human clones ethically unacceptable. However, collectively we do not do enough to ensure that reproductive cloning will never happen. If we allow human cloning for research and therapeutic purposes and allow three-parent babies, how do we prevent the increased knowledge to be used for cloning human beings? 

This latest decision in the UK highlights another aspect of debate: the importance attached to parents having genetically related children. What makes genetic relations so important to us as a society? Rather than talking about this, we look the other way as ethical concerns erode universal norms and values in the pursuit of human biotechnology. The consequences strike not only Britain, but everyone anywhere on this planet: human clones are more of a reality already than we might all believe.

Do you have similar concerns about IVF treatments?

Supporting parents who struggle to conceive is quite different than cloning human beings. Hence my concerns related to IVF are quite different. At the same time, some of the issues are the same: We still know very little about the long-term effects of IVF treatments and the offspring it has successfully produced. After all, the first IVF baby was only born in 1978 and there is very little evidence yet as to how IVF impacts life expectancy or general health. So why take these kinds of risks? As a community, we stand up to protect human rights, values, the individual’s rights and within what we consider acceptable. But when the impact of our actions goes beyond what we now – we back off. Just standing and watching what happens next is something that does concern me. Generally human biotechnology floats between sci-fi horror story and panacea for all ills facing mankind, as well as enabling everyone to have (healthy) genetically related children. But at what price for our collective future?

Can you think of a similar debate?

The debates and impact surrounding the so-called GMO crops and food is probably a good comparison while of different ethical concern. At first hailed to be a victory of science and technology over unfavourable conditions, improving crops and making them more resistant or genetically engineered for particular traits. Now, “GMO free” has become a label of extra quality as we fear the impact on health and future generations having seen some of the negative impacts of GMOs. Will this be a similar path for the future and three-parent (or cloned) babies? How will we, as a society, look at IVF generations, three-parent individuals, or human clones in the future? Will we come up with new categories for families and individuals and parenthood? Do we – and if so how will we – distinguish between genetic and birth parents?  The categories created move beyond what we are talking about with same-sex parents or patchwork families – do we need more labels? What is the right balance between the rights of parents to have genetically related children and individual identify and potentially long-term health of a three-parent baby? Will we all have to declare our process of conception in the future? 

Now what? Is there anything people can do to have their voices heard?

We can always and should always make our voices heard. The three-parent baby impacts all of us, no matter where we live. While the proposed new laws still have to be approved by Britain’s upper house, this is more likely to happen than not. Unless this might be an opportunity for a larger protest which could put the decision on hold. The debates at the international level on human cloning have been largely put on hold, and in many ways it would require an intervention from the international community as a whole to slow down this process and have the legislation be held in the upper house. I do not consider this very likely. So in many ways we are left to trust that Britain will put adequate measures in place to monitor and protect the process, specifically in the interest of the three parents and the baby involved in each future case.

Malisius was also interviewed by C-FAX radio. Listen in at 33:00.