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Three-parent babies - what's going on?

Posted by Anthony McCarthy on 20 January 2017


It is the first time "three-parent IVF" has been used to attempt to cure infertility. Image: Rex features. 

Reports that another baby has been born on January 5th after a form of 'mitochondrial donation' are alarming and should cause us to reflect more deeply what we are in the process of witnessing.

Scroll down to watch Anthony defending human embryos on the BBC!

It is important to be clear on what such techniques involve, as there is much misunderstanding concerning them, not least because some of the parties involved have an interest in obfuscation when it comes to human embryos.

Combining two embryos to make a third

Mitochondrial genes are different from nuclear genes, and are found in the outer part of human cells including egg cells, and also embryo cells. In an attempt to help a couple whose embryos were 'arresting' early, preventing them having a child, a fertility clinic in the Ukraine has fertilised the woman's egg with her partner's sperm to create an embryo from whom the nuclear DNA was then removed. This nuclear DNA was then placed in an embryo created from a donor woman's egg, whose own nuclear material had been removed to make way for it. The combination of parts from these two embryos created a third embryo, who has now been born.

'Pronuclear transfer', as this technique is called, destroys two human embryos by combining the couple's embryo and the embryo of a donor to produce a new embryo who is a clone of the couple's embryo, but with healthy material from the donor embryo. Two embryos are thus destroyed to create a third. This technique is now legal in the UK.

First use for infertility

One difference from the UK situation, however, is that the aim in the Ukraine was not to avoid the birth of children with mitochondrial disease, but to provide children for infertile couples whose embryos were at risk of 'embryo arrest'. It is ironic that the technique itself deliberately 'arrests' and destroys the couple's own original embryo to create spare parts for the embryo eventually born after the first and second embryos have been destroyed.

Identity problems

Thus not only does the technique destroy embryos, treating the embryo purely as a means to an end, it is also likely to create identity problems for the child who does survive to birth. One can only hope that this child, as she grows up, will be loved and respected more than the embryos destroyed to create her, and will understand, and come to terms with, the importance of the natural parentage of which she has sadly been deprived.

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