MEDIA ADVISORY: 2-3-15 Should controversial assisted reproduction technique be legal?

Hastings Center research scholar is available to discuss ethical questions.

A controversial assisted reproduction technique that could prevent transmission of rare diseases and perhaps address some causes of infertility could soon become legal for the first time. The U.K. is considering whether to permit mitochondrial DNA replacement; it would be the first country to do so. (The House of Commons today approved a bill authorizing the procedure.) The United States is studying the ethical and policy considerations of the technology in a series of meetings that began last week by the Institute of Medicine at the request by the Food and Drug Administration.

Josephine Johnston, director of research at The Hastings Center who studies ethical considerations with assisted reproduction, is available to discuss questions posed by the technique.

Mitochondrial DNA replacement is intended for women with defects in mitochondrial DNA. It creates an embryo with the nuclear DNA (which contains most of the genetic information) from the prospective mother and father and the mitochondrial DNA from a donor without mitochondrial defects. Ethical objections center on the technique’s genetic effect on future generations: unlike other human assisted reproduction technologies, it would alter the germline, meaning that mitochondrial DNA would be passed on by daughters to their offspring. Some people think this kind of genetic alteration oversteps the proper role of humans in procreation and, indeed, evolution. Critics are also concerned that this technology could open the door to producing “designer babies”—children who are not simply free of severe genetic diseases but are also genetically selected for traits such as eye color or intelligence.

“The U.K. draft regulations appear reasonable,” says Johnston. “The U.K. has a highly developed process for regulating and overseeing the development and conduct of reproductive technologies, which includes public consultation. The parliamentary vote on the proposed regulations is the final step in a process that began seven years ago. The U.S. could learn a lot from its deliberate, careful process and regulatory system in this area.”

The technique is sometimes called “three-parent IVF,” but Johnston says that this term is misleading. “My view is that any children born from this technology would not have three parents,” she says. “A sperm donor is not a legal or social parent, and neither is an egg donor. I do not see why we would think that someone who donates mitochondrial DNA would be either.”