On Tuesday, The New Scientist magazine reported the fascinating story of a boy who has three “parents”: two “moms” and a dad. But the new method used to conceive this child is actually defensible in a Christian worldview, and has nothing to do with the LGBT movement. Furthermore, it does not involve the creation of a “snowflake child,” but rather uses a method to prevent a disease which kills young children. One Christian biochemist argued that choosing not to pursue such scientific advances is actually “inherently sinful.”
“Our mandate as Christians is not only to preserve the dignity and sanctity of human life, to make sure that we’re not producing human life and discarding it,” Dr. Fazale Rana, who holds a PhD in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry and serves as vice president of research and apologetics at Reasons to Believe, told PJ Media in an interview on Thursday. “To not do things to alleviate human suffering is just as bad in my mind,” he added.
Indeed, if there is a new medical development “that doesn’t compromise human dignity and does alleviate suffering, not to pursue that is inherently sinful.”
So what is the “three-parent baby” method and how does it alleviate suffering?
A Jordanian couple had been trying to start a family for almost 20 years, the New Scientist reported. Ten years after their marriage, the wife became pregnant, but it ended in the first of four miscarriages. In 2005, she gave birth to a baby girl, who was born with Leigh syndrome, a developmental disease which affects the brain, muscles, and nerves of infants. The child died at age six, and the couple’s second child had the same disorder, perishing at 8 months.
After these painful losses, the family sought help from American researchers. John Zhang and his team at the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City agreed to help, and went to Mexico in order to perform operations which have not been legalized in the United States.
While the mother is healthy, her cells carry the disease behind Leigh syndrome in her mitochondria, tiny organelles which provide energy for human cells and carry only 37 percent of the genes passed down from mothers. This mitochondrial DNA, or mDNA, is completely separate from the majority of human DNA, which is housed in each cell’s nucleus.
Zhang and his team used the “three-parent” technique in order to prevent the mother from passing on this mDNA to her child. In the process of fertilization, a mother’s egg cell fuses with a father’s sperm cell. The egg cell is much larger than the sperm cell, and carries the mDNA the child will use to develop. The “three parent” method takes an egg cell from a donor besides the mother, removes the nucleus and replaces it with the nucleus from one of the mother’s egg cells.
Because the family is Muslim, they objected to the method which was legalized in Britain. That method would remove the nucleus from a fertilized egg (or zygote, which is genetically a human being), and replace it with the nucleus from another fertilized egg. This method entails the death of one zygote, who had a unique DNA pattern and had the potential to become a full human being. The family rejected this method, insisting on the egg method instead, which does not result in the death of a human zygote.
Since the mDNA (which carries the disease) does not reside in the nucleus of the cell, which houses the DNA responsible for nearly all key individual characteristics (such as sex, height, eye color, et cetera), the mother could provide the nuclear DNA and so remain for all intents and purposes the child’s biological mother. In this sense, the “three-parent” term is a misnomer — as all the DNA which makes each individual unique comes only from the mother who provided the nucleus.
So Zhang’s team took a donor egg, removed the nucleus, and replaced it with the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs. They then used the father’s sperm to fertilize the egg. The team made five embryos, only one of which developed normally and was viable enough to survive in the mother’s womb. This embryo was implanted in the mother’s womb and the child was born on April 6, 2016.
Zhang admitted that his team had to go to Mexico, where “there are no rules,” but he argued that he made the right choice in doing so. “To save lives is the ethical thing to do,” he told the New Scientist. The baby boy has shown no signs of Leigh syndrome and is developing normally. This procedure has been hailed as historic by the scientific community.
Next Page: “Playing God” or “Playing Dr. Frankenstein?”
News of this “three parent baby” has not only been celebrated, however. Some have already condemned the practice as “playing God.” One professor at Cornell University went even further, saying it isn’t “playing God,” it’s “playing Dr. Frankenstein.”
“There are only guesses, ignorance, wild hope, and a brazen willingness to experiment on real people as if they were lab rats. This isn’t playing God. God loves people. This is playing Dr. Frankenstein,” Dr. William M. Briggs, who holds his PhD in statistics and writes on the corruption of science, wrote in The Stream on Tuesday.
Briggs explained the “three-parent baby” using an analogy.
Jones comes to the doctor and says, “Doc, I’m suffering from cancer.” Doc says, “No problem. Got the cure right here.” Doc pulls out a gun and shoots Jones in the cranium. Doc buzzes the intercom and says, “Nurse, send in Smith.” Smith comes in and Doc says, “You’re now Jones, and you’re cured.”
This make sense?
The analogy is crude, but Briggs has a point. He argued that “No lives were saved by Zhang. No lives will be saved. No lives can be saved.” In this procedure, “some lives are prevented, while some are ended to facilitate the birth of others. No diseases are ‘cured.’ A cure is when a person with a disease has that disease removed. In ‘three-parent’ child-making, a person who might get a disease is either prevented from being conceived, or conceived then killed.”
The biochemist Dr. Rana disagreed wholeheartedly. “It’s very important for experts not to become fear-mongers,” Rana argued. “I think using the Frankenstein imagery is not very helpful — it creates a guttural reaction on the part of people.”
Rana argued that Christians have a duty to embrace new technology that alleviates human suffering, and preventing the death of a child qualifies in that category. “God has granted us these incredible minds that He expects us to use for His Glory,” the biochemist declared. Christians ought to emulate the Good Samaritan and use their talents to help the less fortunate.
Rana also disagreed with Briggs’ analogy. “What the donor is providing is an egg cell, it is a special type of cell, but it’s not the full-fledged individual,” the biochemist explained. “They’re not providing an individual that is being destroyed.”
He presented a better analogy: Rather than killing Jones and replacing him with Smith, the doctor would say, “We’ll provide you with the housing and some of the furniture, and you will plop your nucleus onto the furniture.” Since the cell which is destroyed is only an egg cell, part of the mother’s body, its destruction is not the death of an individual.
As for the four other embryos which did not develop, Rana compared them to a miscarriage. Their loss is regrettable, but not murder or killing.
Rana admitted that this “three-parent baby” method does not cure an illness or a disease, but it does prevent one — indeed, many diseases have been linked to mDNA. He called it “a genetic form of inoculation — you’re eliminating the genetic disease in a subsequent generation.”
“I would really exhort Christians on how you think about emerging biotechnologies,” the chemist added. “Every biotechnology is unique, and we shouldn’t, as a gut reaction, miss the technology.” He argued that Christians need to take the time to understand what each advance does, so they can “speak into how our culture is going to use the technology, trying to shape that application so it promotes the dignity of human life while at the same time using the technology that alleviates human suffering.”
Next Page: Even Rana admitted there are ethical dilemmas in the application of this new method, however.
Even Rana admitted that certain ethical dilemmas arise while using some of the technology involved in “three-parent” baby-making.
The process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) proved crucial to this development, and that process has some ethical challenges. IVF involves joining an egg cell and a sperm cell outside of the mother’s body, and then implanting the zygote into the mother to develop. “Many times, you create excess viable embryos that you then freeze,” the biochemist explained. “Some of them are never used,” and if the embryos were to be destroyed that would constitute the ending of a human life.
The biochemist did insist that the “three-parent baby” process cannot be used to produce designer babies, however. The answer to that question is “absolutely no,” he said. “There’s no genetic manipulation happening whatsoever in this system.”
Nevertheless, “there will be donors involved, women who provide the eggs,” Rana added. “We want to make sure that those women are not exploited. What relationship does the donor have with the child, because the child will bear a part of her genetic fingerprint — does she have parental rights?” The biochemist said these are just a few of the “psychological and sociological issues that arise as a consequence of the technology.”
These complex issues are exactly why Christians must take the time to understand biochemical advances, Rana explained. “We can develop technology faster than we can truly deliberate through the ethical issues.”
“In order to really deliberate on these ethical issues requires an audience that understands the science,” the biochemist added. Regrettably, “scientific illiteracy is a real issue in this country.”