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Monday, August 5, 2013

Should We Encourage Three Parent Embryos?

This is a sort of follow-up to my last article. In fact, this is the topic that inspired it. There was an article written by Alex B. Berezow, a microbiologist, arguing that we should support the creation of three-parent embryos. The United Kingdom is drawing up regulations for this procedure. Now, In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is a controversial and currently immoral procedure because excess embryos are always created and destroyed. Since human life begins at fertilization, creating excess embryos and terminating them is wrong. But moral issues pertaining to IVF aside, is creating three-parent human beings wrong?

This is actually a perfect example of why science needs philosophy. To quote the Federation President from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, "Just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing." I would add that it does not even necessarily follow that we should do that thing. Philosophical reflection can help us determine if we're overstepping our bounds when it comes to the natural order of things.

The reason for the desire to create three-parent embryos is for women who have a mitochondrial disease. As a different article explains, "Mitochondria are the tiny, biological 'power stations' that give the body energy. They are passed from a mother, through the egg, to her child. Defective mitochondria affect one in every 6,500 babies. This can leave them starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most extreme cases. Research suggests that using mitochondria from a donor egg can prevent the diseases. It is envisaged that up to 10 couples a year would benefit from the treatment. However, it would result in babies having DNA from two parents and a tiny amount from a third donor as the mitochondria themselves have their own DNA."

I'm not sure if the concept of three-parent embryos, on its own, is immoral. There's a lot to consider when it comes to our obligations to children that we conceive. I think that if a person has a genetic disorder which will result in a high chance that a child will be severely disabled or even die, then that person has a moral obligation not to reproduce. I could be argued out of my position, but if the intention is truly to help a woman with a mitochondrial disease to conceive healthy children then I fail to see how that would be morally problematic.

Doctor Berezow does present some arguments that I will respond to below, but the second article presents an objection to the procedure. The objection is that this will cause a slippery slope that will lead to designer babies. But I think this argument is mistaken. There is a clear difference between trying to prevent a child from contracting a disease and making designer babies. You might as well argue that giving children Hepatitus innoculations can lead to designer babies.

Wesley J. Smith at LifeNews has written an article in response to Dr. Berezow's argument. His argument seems to be based on another slippery slope argument, that allowing the creation of three-parent embryos will lead to homosexual couples conceiving children. The morality around homosexuality and homosexual marriage is beyond the scope of this blog, so I won't address it. Though I do agree there's a bioethical concern since sex is intrinsically linked to procreation. Because sex is intrinsically linked to reproduction, and reproduction requires a man and a woman, this is the proper method of reproducing. Techniques such as IVF should only be used in the case in which one or both of the couple are sterile as a method of correcting a biological deficiency. If we could perfect IVF to where excess embryos would not have to be created, then creating three-parent embryos should only be done in the rare cases in which a child will be conceived with a high chance of contracting a debilitating illness. Using this procedure because a couple who is not biologically deficient but cannot reproduce, by the very nature of their relationship, is immoral.

That being said, I don't think Mr. Smith's argument succeeds. Yes, it may lead to immorally creating embryos for parents who are not trying to prevent a disease. But just because someone may misuse a legitimate procedure meant to help the creation of healthy life does not mean that we shouldn't allow the procedure in the first place. People use knives to kill, but it doesn't follow from this fact that people should not be allowed to own them. However, Smith is quite correct that Dr. Berezow just dismisses the arguments, rather than actually addressing them.

Returning to Dr. Berezow's article, he says that the objections need serious answers. The problem is he really didn't appear to give these objections any serious reflection at all. In fact, by telling us these are serious answers he's essentially insulting the intelligence of everyone who has doubts about this procedure.

Let's hear (so to speak) his response to the first objection. "Critics say that the safety of the procedure is unknown. That is indeed true. Further study and clinical trials should be conducted. However, a mother with a mitochondrial diease who wishes to have her own children may very well choose to accept the risk. Remember, she has nearly a 100% chance of passing on a disease to her child; this technique would greatly reduce that risk."

The problem here is that Berezow doesn't address the objection at all. He merely side-steps the issue. If this was an untested medical procedure she wanted to perform on herself to prevent possible loss of life, that's fine. But now she's going to accept the risk for someone else, something that would never be allowed for any other patient. If we have an obligation not to procreate and risk passing on a rare disease to a child, then surely we have an obligation not to conceive a child through an unsafe procedure. There is another choice that Berezow overlooks -- she could just not procreate. I know this choice would be a difficult one, but moral obligations are usually not easy.

Doctor Berezow responds to a second objection: "Other critics worry about the ethics of destroying embryos. However, it should be kept in mind that standard IVF also destroys embryos. Extra embryos are always made, and the “leftover” embryos are often discarded or frozen indefinitely. It is estimated that some 600,000 embryos sit unwanted in freezers in the United States alone."

This is just a really lousy argument. Again, he doesn't address the objection at all. His argument is that because IVF destroys embryos, we should allow this procedure. In-Vitro Fertilization is immoral specifically because excess embryos are created and destroyed. If this three-parent procedure also results in destroying human embryos, it is immoral, too. In order for the objection not to succeed, Berezow would need to argue why destroying embryos is not immoral. Rather than do this, he argues for a second immoral procedure just because one procedure that we allow is already immoral. Again, this is why science needs philosophy.

So far a less than stellar defense of the procedure. His final response, "Finally, some critics worry about genetic engineering and the supposed slippery slope that will lead to creating designer babies. Besides the unconvincing nature of “slippery slope” arguments in general, this criticism is inconsiderate of those people who wish to have their own biological children but are incapable of doing so. For the foreseeable future, genetic engineering will be about curing illnesses, not creating designer babies. We can deal with that issue if and when it arises."

I address this briefly above, but a few more thoughts. Slippery slope arguments, like most fallacies, are not always fallacious. They are not fallacious if you have warrant for the slippery slope. I do think the first slippery slope that I addressed (from designer babies) was fallacious for the reason I gave. I don't think the second slippery slope (from homosexual-conceived children) is fallacious as I do believe there is warrant for it, but I don't think it successfully argues against three-parent embryos for the reason I gave.

But third in the line of really bad arguments, Berezow now simply presents a fallacious argument from pity. He dismisses this argument by calling it inconsiderate. Because an argument is inconsiderate doesn't make it wrong. Again, he doesn't respond to the objection at all.

So again, IVF is a currently immoral procedure because of the excess embryos that are created. Before we reach a point where we can create just one embryo that can implant, or multiples that all get implanted, the creation of three-parent embryos will be immoral, even if there's nothing wrong with three-parent embryos, per se. But if we do reach the point where we can reproduce embryos ethically, I don't see any reason why three-parent embryos should not be allowed in order to prevent a serious disease or premature death. Used incorrectly, the process would be immoral.

Science needs philosophy because without philosophy, scientists will justify any number of immoral procedures. Without philosophical reflection, scientists will continue to do weird and immoral things that they ought not be doing, just because they can. Considering Berezow's responses to these objections, I'm pretty sure he's never even taken a class on logic. I am very interested to know what others think on this issue, and I could be argued out of my position that there isn't anything inherently wrong with three-parent embryos to prevent a serious disease. Please let me know what you think in the comments.

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