Perhaps the biggest fear raised by advances in genetic engineering like the ability to create a baby with three parents is that we are heading straight down a road that leads to eugenics — the attempt to create perfect "designer" babies.
From "Star Trek" to "Star Wars" to many more films like "Gattaca" and "The Boys from Brazil," Hollywood has warned us time and again that genetic engineering of animals or people is nothing but bad news.
History sadly also shows the horror that eugenics programs have produced in Germany, Japan and many other nations when some people are deemed more desirable and others are seen as defective, burdensome or subhuman. Death camps, forced sterilization, restrictions on marriage, exile, concentration camps, prohibitions on immigration — all have all been carried out in the name of eugenics.
But Hollywood is wrong. Not everything about genetic engineering is morally horrible. Nor is human genetic engineering always motivated by eugenic goals.
The FDA is considering approving an experiment to repair a genetic disease in humans by creating embryos with DNA from three parents. Genes would be transferred from a healthy human egg to one that has a disease and the "repaired" egg then fertilized in the hope that a healthy baby will result. The goal of the experiment in genetic engineering is not a perfect baby but a healthy baby.
One in 4,000 children inherit terrible diseases due to genetic mutations in their mitochondria. The mitochondria are the batteries of cells. They provide the energy that lets cells divide and grow. All mitochondria are inherited from the mother — from her eggs. And, the mitochondria are separate, tiny units in the egg meaning you can pick them out and transplant them.
So if you know that a mitochondrial disease runs in your family, you might want to try getting pregnant using one of your eggs that has been genetically engineered to have mitochondria from a donor egg.
None of this should raise concerns about abortion. Only eggs, not embryos, would be involved. There are, however, safety concerns. We won't really know if mitochondrial transplants work until healthy young people exist who have been made using the technique. Studies in primates look promising but safety in humans is still a risk.
In my view, trying the technique to fix a terrible disease even with risks of failure makes ethical sense. The FDA may ask for more studies in monkeys, but that really wont settle the safety issue in humans. Given the severity of mitochondrial diseases it is worth trying the technique.
The big worry is not so much safety, but where will allowing this form of genetic engineering lead. If we let doctors try to repair defective eggs today, who is to say they won't be trying to make superbabies or designer babies tomorrow by transferring other genes into eggs?
The answer to that is that how far we go in engineering future generations through genetic manipulations is up to us. We can enact laws and treaties that say yes to gene therapies but no to cosmetic genetic engineering. Holding families hostage by saying they cannot try to repair broken genes to treat diseases because we worry that we cannot put steps or handrails on the slippery slope to designer babies seems wrong to me.
If we really do not want to see eugenic genetic engineering in our future then we need to draw a line now between treatment and enhancement. Will we? I don't know. But asking the FDA not to allow mitochondrial transplants to fix diseases is not the way to prevent eugenics from happening.