Critics find dodgy ethics in 'three-parent baby' conception

Baby in parents arms Credit geliatida Shutterstock CNA geliatida via Shutterstock.

The use of a technique to conceive a "three-parent baby" dodged U.S. law and, critics say, may further alter the relationship between parent and child.

"This fertility doctor openly acknowledged that he went to Mexico where `there are no rules' in order to evade ongoing review processes and existing regulations in the United States," said Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based think tank Center for Genetics and Society.

"No researcher or doctor has the right to flout agreed-upon rules and make up their own. This is an irresponsible and unethical act, and sets a dangerous precedent."

U.S. doctors worked in Mexico to avoid U.S. laws that ban the procedures.

They performed the treatment on a Jordanian woman to prevent her from passing on a genetic condition to her child. The condition, called Leigh Syndrome, would be fatal to children due to a defect in mitochondria, the cellular structures that generate energy from food.

The woman and her husband had suffered four miscarriages. One of the children died eight months after birth and another at six years of age.

The doctors took DNA from the mother's egg and healthy mitochondria from a donor egg to create a new egg to be artificially fertilized. The doctors created five embryos and only one developed normally, BBC News reports.

The boy conceived in the technique was born in April and is now five months old.

Darnovsky wished the infant and his family well, but noted that the Food and Drug Administration had raised "many cautions" about the risk to children conceived in these techniques and possibly to their own children.

"The precedent is very troubling – both in the sense of scientists who should know better `going rogue' with a risky and experimental procedure, and in the sense that they're doing so using a technique that is technically a form of human germline modification," Darnovsky said, referring to genetic modification of heritable traits.

The doctors' team leaders include Dr. John Zhang, medical director at the New Hope Fertility Centre in New York City. They will present their findings at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in October.

The ethics of the technique drew criticism from Robert P. George, a Princeton law professor who has written on the ethical treatment of the human person in embryo, and Dr. Donald Landry, then-chair of the Department of Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital. They sent a Feb. 18, 2014 letter to the Food and Drug Administration objecting to any human trials using the procedure.

"The desire to help women suffering from mitochondrial disorders or infertility is admirable and worthy," George and Landry said. "However, the needs of the children being created through novel technologies also must be taken into account."

They said the procedure could lead to birth defects and other disorders. The procedure would take place with a relative lack of regulatory oversight.

The procedure using three genetic parents would be "a dramatic alteration of the first and most basic of natural human relationships, with consequences difficult to fathom or predict."

The fact that human beings have a single mother and father has been "inseparable from our most fundamental social institutions." They called for greater moral scrutiny for any actions that would "purposely reconfigure the natural, biological foundation of the family."

George and Landry also objected that the technique would necessarily involve the destruction of human embryos and permit "an unjust and immoral exploitation and instrumentalization of human life."

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