Three Parents and a Baby
October 7, 2016
This week on The Digital Life we discuss the recent announcement that the world’s first baby was born from new procedure using DNA of three people. Dr. John Zhang, from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York, led the team that attempted the mitochondrial transfer procedure. The procedure replaces faulty DNA in a mother’s egg with healthy DNA from a second woman — the baby inherits genes from two mothers and one father. This prevents certain, potentially fatal genetic diseases from being passed on to the child. The United Kingdom was the first country to legalize mitochondrial transfer in 2015, but, no other country has followed with a similar law. The procedure was conducted in Mexico where there are no rules in place for this kind of activity, with a team from the US. While this technique does not specifically impact the concerns about “designer babies”, it’s clear that the genomic technology is advancing far more quickly than governments are able to deal with it.
Exclusive: World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique
There are a few children each year who are born with these faults in their mitochondrial DNA, which can cause all sorts of problems. This type of procedure is legalized in the United Kingdom, but there is no other laws on the books that expressly enable this type of procedure to happen in other countries. The team that completed the procedure was U.S.-based, but they did all the work in Mexico, which didn’t have any particular rules in place, and, therefore, I think that raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community.
First, let’s just get general impressions and then we’ll dig into some of the pretty large ethical and scientific issues that this raises. It doesn’t completely compose all of these potential problems into one thing, but it certainly raises the issue. Let’s start with general impressions, Dirk.
It seems newer, scarier maybe, but it’s really not that different. It’s really making a decision based on the viability of the biological material of one of the parents and making an alteration for the viability or the health of a baby. In and of itself it’s doing it at the genetic level as opposed to the sort of substitution of an egg or a sperm cell, which makes it different, but it’s pretty similar from an outcome perspective. Where this becomes more compelling is the slippery slope problem, because it’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh, yeah, you know, we don’t want to have this child born with this congenital problem. We want it to be born healthy.”
Most people are going to nod their heads with that and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” making that replacement okay, but the path isn’t that long to the superman, the supermensch model, where you’re not replacing to avoid some disease or some condition. You’re replacing to enhance. You’re replacing to go and not just get healthy, but to healthy superstar. Right? I think that’s where it becomes more interesting. Certainly, this technology is on a path to allow that to happen, even though in the sort of concrete sense that we imagine it probably not able to happen today.
If you’re able to change your DNA to make you more competitive, smarter, faster, better, but that’s only accessible to the ultra elite, then it raises the question that I believe there is maybe with the time machine where H. G. Wells had the fantasy of 2 human strains that develop totally differently, one that lived underground and one that lived above ground, sort of drastically transferring this societal framework and making it something that changed the direction of humanity.
I think ethically those are the things that jump out to me. I’m sure there are all sorts of gradations of that, and some of that seems a little bit far-fetched. I don’t know, Dirk. What’s your thoughts on that?
That’s been the case whether it’s been a democracy, whether it’s been a hereditary monarchy, whether it’s been communism. Regardless of the social structure, there is a small group that has a vast majority of the wealth and power that tends to propagate generation over generation over generation, whether it be because it’s supposedly by divine right or whether it’s because you just have a shit ton of money that you keep passing down to the following generations.
To me, if we’re concerned about it being only elite are going to use this and their children are going to be more powerful, more successful, more set up, it’s already the case. It’s just manifesting in different ways. Now, it’s just they have the millions of dollars that they pass down, which gives the children ginormous advantages that sets them up to more likely to be in charge. This is just a different flavor of that.
Not that that is necessarily to advocate for or excuse it, but I don’t know that it’s such a different state of affairs than we already have in the world. The fact is, there is a power elite in virtually every organized manifestation of civilization as far back as recorded history goes, and that power elite generally tends to stay in place generation over generation. One of the things that’s remarkable about the experience in the United States of America, where we are, is that unlike the European countries, where many of us came from originally, it’s much easier to go from having nothing to make it for yourself and to get into that elite at one level or another.
The question is, would this make it harder? Would the sort of promise of America of, “I have nothing, but I’m going to work hard and be ingenious and make something for myself that starts to move me into a place of power and could move my family into a place of power,” do the hurdles of designer babies and technology create a system that is less penetrable by the lower classes? I think it may, but I think there’s a lot of unknowns, too, so I’m not sure.
I don’t know that there is a clear answer about how government should approach getting involved in this discussion, but I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency, in particular on the biotech side, and I’m just lumping all this together under biological-type technologies. My feeling is that over the past 18 months, we’ve seen an extraordinary number of advances and news headlines, some maybe just for effect, but certainly the technology is starting to run at a full sprint. I feel like regulation or at least discussion in that area is at best at a walk and nowhere near approaching what we need.
What is more impactful on the outcome of a child as they’re advancing? Is it more impactful that they get the super smart genes, or is it more impactful that they get the private schooling? I think it’s well within the realm of possibility that the environmental and network benefits of the existing old-school infrastructure that the money buys actually is the thing that should be more intimidating and frightening to the have-nots in terms of the advantages that the children are getting.
It’s just that the designer baby aspect of it is the sort of sci-fi. It’s not here yet. It’s a little bit scary. It’s easier to feel fear toward … I suspect that the very analog, very old-school advantages that the money of the power elite provide are really putting in harder-to-overcome obstacles for the rest of us ultimately, at least certainly in the short term until that technology is super-perfected and is creating more holistic uber people.