Sometimes, I say stupid things. One of my wife’s favorite “Jill Says A Silly Thing” moments was many years ago, as we rode the T together in Boston. We were still in our early head over heels phase, and were having some type of starry eyed conversation about what our babies could be like. You know the one.
Then, very suddenly, I felt like someone had dropped a bucket of ice cold water over my head. And I turned to her to say, genuinely, and full of anguish: “But we will never actually be able to have each other’s babies!”
Haha! I mean, duh. Haha, me! I knew this! I always knew this! But there was something in that moment where the utter unfairness of our biology hit me full throttle, and it was such a bummer I had to say it out loud, whether it sounded stupid or not.
But what if we actually could have each other’s babies?
The United Kingdom is backing science that alters a baby’s genetic material to be made with the DNA of three parents. If regulations are passed later in the year, it could be offered to parents within two years. It would be the first country in the world to do so.
The change would occur in the initial mother’s mitochondria inside of her egg. Essentially, if she has faulty mitochondria, they could be swapped out with another mother’s healthy mitochondrial cells, while leaving the rest of the egg intact. (Sperm, unfortunately, are still necessary. I know, what a drag.) The additional genetic material from the second female would be small: 37 mitochondrial third party genes would be in the fetus, compared with 20,000+ genes from the other two parents. A BBC article explains the science of it further and better than I can.
The purpose behind this mitochondrial switch is disease prevention. It could bring a halt to serious and rare genetic diseases caused by faulty mitochondria. So make no mistake, “stoking the fires of lesbian dreams” is nowhere near British scientists’ targets. And perhaps even linking disease prevention techniques to selfish personal desires is a crude idea at worst, slightly unethical at best. Indeed, while scientists agree that the procedure is quite safe, many wonder if it’s setting off a “slippery slope” to “designer babies,” that changing a baby’s genes in the womb is interrupting how evolution is supposed to work.
Since the second mother’s genetic contribution would be small, it’s also not as if the baby would truly seem, on the outside, like it came from three parents. But still, something of a second female would be a part of that human being. And so while I’m certainly not saying, “Whoo, let’s have each other’s babies!,” the fact that the science even exists, and is seemingly moving swiftly forward, is at least cause for pause. It’s one of the stories where I feel Science is jumping in front of our face to shout, “Guess what? I still possess the ability to totally blow your mind!”
My wife and I, many years after that conversation on the T, think about children more realistically now, and also in a more torn way. Our first instinct is to adopt, because it’s the “right thing to do.” Yet there’s still some mysterious, deep rooted part of myself that wants to carry on our family genes, that wants to feel what it’s like to carry another being inside of me. It’s weird, and hard to explain, but it’s there. While any actual choices are still far away for us financially, we have loosely and haphazardly decided to do both. Why not? The Fosters can do it; we can do it too! Because after initially thinking that wanting to carry my own child is selfish, I now feel like it’s hard to say whether one choice or the other is “better.” They’re both important.
But if we do feel that it’s worthy, and important, to inject the sperm of a social “third party,” in a sense, in order to create a child for a family, how much more unethical is it to inject a physical, genetic third party?
The amount of people this procedure would affect, if all goes according to plan in the UK, is substantially small. They predict 10 families a year with defective mitochondria could benefit. But what if the science expands, and they offer even more genetic options when it comes to making babies, not just for disease prevention, but as a matter of choice? Is it taking science too far? Or is it a choice we shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to take?