Earlier this month, News Scientist broke the story that the world’s first “three-parent baby” was born to a couple from Jordan in a New York hospital. For gay couples — who still must resort to one of those “face mash-up” apps to determine what their biological children might look like — this might have seemed revolutionary. Does this mean same-sex partners can both be represented genetically in their offspring?
Kind of. But not really.
While the method used to produce the so-called “three-parent baby” does in fact use genetic material from three separate people, it does so in a very limited way. The process involves removing damaged mitochondria from the mother and replacing it with healthy mitochondria from a donor in order to prevent a long list of life-threatening mitochondrial diseases. But since mitochondria carry very few of the markers that determine our genetic makeup, the procedure will not result in any significant physical or other defining characteristics from the donor.
In other words: Don’t delete that face mash-up app just yet. And if reaction to the misnamed “three-parent baby” procedure is any guide, when the breakthrough eventually comes to allow same-sex couples to reproduce — a reality which may be sooner than you may think — we still may have decades of face-mashing ahead of us.
Despite the potentially lifesaving benefits of the mitochondrial transfer procedure, social conservatives are fighting tooth and nail to prevent, defund and delegitimize the research that will make the procedure safe and commonplace. An op-ed in the Federalist, for instance, said the new procedure amounted to the “Frankensteining” of children:
“Children are not hamburgers,” author Cheryl Magness wrote, “and doctors are not short-order cooks standing ready to slap them together according to the customer’s preference, tossing in the waste bucket the ones who don’t pass quality control.”
Scientists have possessed the ability to conduct a complete mitochondrial transfer since at least the early 2000s. But thanks to the predictably fevered reaction from critics like Magness — whose arguments against mitochondrial transfers are based in conjecture and moralistic reasoning — the procedure remains legal only in England.
If this is the response to a procedure that can improve the lives of untold numbers of children, just imagine the cataclysmic hissy fit that will follow once technology allows for Perez Hilton to reproduce with another man.
Of course, this should come as a surprise to no one; social conservatives have been fighting against scientific breakthroughs in reproductive technology for decades. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, critics of the groundbreaking in vitro fertilization (IVF) process derided children born via the procedure as unnatural “test-tube babies,” and their moralistic arguments set research and funding for the procedure back decades.
Today, of course, IVF is safe and commonplace, and has helped millions of reproductively challenged women conceive and LGBT people to start families. The mitochondrial transfer procedure has the potential to be similarly revolutionary, as does the technology that will one day allow same-sex couples to reproduce. But first, we must recognize advancements in reproductive assistance for what they are — lifesavers and dream-fulfillers — and not the stuff of a twisted Mary Shelley fantasy.