The Advent of Three-Parent Designer Babies

The Story: The United Kingdom may soon become the first country to allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people, after the government backed the in vitro fertilization (IVF) technique.

The Background: The new IVF technique adds DNA from a third-party donor in order to eliminate debilitating and potentially fatal mitochondrial diseases that are passed on from mother to child. Defective mitochondria, which affects one in every 6,500 babies, can leave babies starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure, and, in the most extreme cases, death. Approximately 10 couples a year in the UK would benefit from the treatment if it is made legal.

The result is a baby with genetic information from three people.

Why It Matters: The innovation and its acceptance combine two of the most troubling bioethical issues related to IVF. The creation of three-parent embryos and “designer babies” are each troubling. But to combine them is a significant leap forward into dehumanizing eugenics.

Eugenics is the practices of improving the genetic composition of a population by increasing the number of people who have a more desired trait and reducing those with less desirable traits. Currently, our most common eugenics practice is to screen for children who may have Down syndrome and then kill them before they are born. It is estimated that upward of 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are aborted.

Increasingly, though, IVF techniques are being created that allow certain genetic traits to be eliminated or selected from an embryo before they are implanted. This in itself is not morally problematic, so long as no embryos are being destroyed. But in bioethics the line between therapy (preventing or curing diseases) and enhancement (improving capabilities not related to disease) is often blurred.

Even when such distinctions can be made, our culture of unfettered personal choice makes it nearly impossible to say that certain “enhancements” should not be made. If we allow genetic changes to prevent mitochondrial disease, why should we not allow such changes to make sure a child is born with blue eyes, blonde hair, and a fair complexion?

Added to this concern is the problem of allowing three genetic “parents.” Since the creation of IVF in 1978 we’ve been able to sever sex from procreation; now we are able to sever parenthood from procreation. By mixing in some genetic material, anyone can be added to the “parental line” of a child. A polygamist family could have any number of genetic fathers and mothers. Who then would be legally entitled to be claimed as the “parents”? If current legal trends hold, the answer would be “all of them.”

Christians should attempt to do what we can to hold the line against techniques that degrade our humanity. But as long as “what can be done, must be done” is the only ethic our culture acknowledges, we may not be able to stop this immoral advance. We have entered a Brave New World that we are unprepared for—legally, political, ethically, and culturally—and from which we may not be able to turn back.

  • Stephanie Blessing

    Actually, the severance of sex from procreation happened long before 1978. Almost 100 years, in fact. The first recorded account of artificial insemination in humans can be read about here:

    There is so much that I want to say regarding assisted reproductive technologies…so much that NEEDS to be said, especially to the Christians who embrace it. But I’ll just say this; I am a product of an anonymous sperm “donor” via artificial insemination. I love my non-biological dad. And yet there are major ethical issues that people involved in this refuse to examine, to the detriment of the children who are created this way.

    So thank you, Joe, for writing about this.

  • Lori

    I’m unclear from this piece whether the third-party donations would be allowed in all cases, or only in the limited way described, in cases where this mitochondrial disease occurs and only to repair the genetic problems?

    I’m also not sure we can say that parenthood and procreation are just now able to be severed. My father-in-law’s biological father, in the 1940s, deserted his mother with two young children, and was never heard from again. That is not an unusual story. Historically, men in particular have always been able to sever parenthood from procreation, and an unfortunate number has always done just that.

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  • Nathan Lummus

    As a dad to a non-biological daughter, I had to get over “procreation without sex and parenthood” awhile ago to be able to enter fatherhood. Yes, there were legal loopholes, paperwork, lawyers, judges, and birth parents. That process tilts my perception of parenthood in general. Through adoption, many couples are looking for designer babies. Throughout the home study process are various checklists in which you choose biological facts of your child before a match can be determined to fit. In our case, we were open to all races and genders, but not we did have to make a hard decision. As an example, due to our income, we could not afford a medically fragile child, and (after much prayer) many of our checklists did not include medically fragile children. This was after being matched with a medically fragile child.

    For those suffering from infertility, as is my case, this process could help those who want a biological child, who otherwise medically could not procreate. I would not look at their baby as less human, nor would I consider another couples’ choice to have a biological child as a lesser calling than choosing adoption.

    On the other hand, this does open the door to “actual” designer children and advanced eugenics, which reminds me of the movie, GATTACA, or maybe even Godsend. I agree with Joe. Where will the enhancements stop? Perhaps regulation on doctors to perform medically necessary procedures, and, hopefully, they would abstain from total manipulation of the genetic code.

    If people choose this path to children, it will not make them better or worse parents, just like choosing to drive a BMW over a Chevrolet does not make the quality of the driver better or worse. The only thing to change people is Jesus, not children. Having children through sex, IVF, or genetic modification will not save anyone. All of us have one Father, and in the end, it only matters whether we know Him or not. If we do know Him, I think He would be thrilled for a married couple to having a child through any of the methods I described. If they are living in ignorance of Christ, I don’t think it matters whether they adopt or procreate through biological channels or science.

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  • JohnM

    I think we’re past the point where Christians are in a position to “hold the line” on much of anything outside the church. Plus, we seem to have our hands full holding various lines inside the church.

  • David Baker

    Hi Joe,

    I disagree with your article, for reasons set out in the article on the Christian Today website at (which I wrote before I read your own).

    I do think we have to be careful to consider each ethical issue very carefully, both on the facts and on the relevant Biblical framework.

    With all good wishes

    David Baker

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