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'Three-Parent Babies' Should Evoke Hope, Not Fear

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BABY
Tatjana Kaufmann via Getty Images

As you might have heard last month, "three-parent babies" might soon become a living and breathing reality in America. U.S. health officials are examining the possibility of in vitro fertilization techniques using DNA from three people as a solution for genetic illnesses passed down through the mitochondria. Adding a third person to the reproductive equation limits the likelihood that these diseases will be carried on to future generations, because it prevents mothers from passing on pathogenic (disease-causing) mitochondrial genes. In this three-person system, the afflicted mother donates her nuclear DNA, the father gives his, and a third donor supplies healthy mitochondrial DNA.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

Not to everyone. Genetic engineering is still a new science, and the ramifications are yet to be fully uncovered. Anytime a new procedure like this is unveiled to the public, critics cry "designer babies!" and warn of Gattaca-esque scenarios where everyone looks like a Victoria's Secret model with the intellect of a Nobel laureate. Many in the medical field have voiced concern that there is a thin line between altering genes to improve physical health and manipulation for other purposes. If we as a society decide that it is acceptable to engineer disease-free embryos, does that pave the way for a master race of -- to borrow from Daft Punk -- better, faster, stronger babies?

I'm inclined to say no. Individual genes aren't technically altered in this procedure, and the majority of genes influencing traits like height, intelligence or speed come from the nuclear DNA, not the mitochondrial DNA. Slate blogger Jessica Gross seems to agree, penning a post entitled "'Designer Babies' Aren't Coming. The New York Times Is Just Trying to Scare You." (Her title references a recent sensationalist headline in the Times.) In the post, law professor Nita Farahany tells Gross that the majority of issues regarding genetic manipulation don't apply to this specific circumstance. She notes that there is a sizable difference between replacing defective mitochondria and hand-picking a baby's hair and eye color.

To me, this procedure sounds like an exciting opportunity for genetically "unlucky" parents to reproduce without fear of bringing a sick child into the world. So many people suffer from conditions that decrease their quality of life. If it is unethical to produce children using the DNA of three parents, is it ethical to deny responsible but disease-carrying parents the chance to have healthy children? For many couples carrying genetic conditions, it is inadvisable for them to have children. This procedure could benefit the lives of many without creating unfair, artificial improvements. It's a therapy that the embryos need in order to be guaranteed the same prospects as other children. There are no physical or intellectual advantages. Being disease-free does not equal a perfect SAT score; instead, the procedure would be ensuring that these children have a shot at the healthy life.

Of course, as with any scientific advancement, there are risks and drawbacks. Some scientists fear that it's too soon to approve trials on humans, because the procedure has not been tested (on animals) over a sufficient period of time to ensure safe results. There could be side effects that are masked in immediate offspring and don't reveal themselves for several generations. Plus, the therapy is sure to be expensive and only available to those fortunate enough to be able to afford such reproductive technology. Still, the improvements it will likely create seem to outweigh the potential dangers. Yes, tinkering with the human genome is daunting, but it could also save lives. If successful, these manipulation therapies will unlock a quality of life previously inaccessible to these babies and their families by eradicating the chance of disease-carrying mothers passing down their mitochondria-inherited diseases. And what's so scary about that?