Three-Parent IVF

The ways to make a baby have been expanded once again. While the ways to bring a baby into this world can be the source of much bioethical debate, it was generally accepted that two people would be part of the process. After a recent decision in the British House of Commons, this given has changed – three parent in vitro fertilization (IVF) has been approved.

The way three-parent IVF works (in a very simplified explanation) is the nucleus from an egg with defective mitochondria would replace the nucleus of an egg with healthy mitochondria (see here).  This means that embryos developed from this process would have two mothers and a father. This process, referred to as “mitochondrial transfer” by supporters, has been banned in every country except the United Kingdom at this point based on the germline alteration that occurs during the process (see here). However, this process has been proposed for research approval in the United States, as well (see here).

This procedure of three-parent IVF raises a myriad of bioethical concerns. Rather than address all of the potential ethical concerns created by this technique in one blog post, today I’m going to focus on ethical concerns for the child created through this process.

First, although we live in a time when family seems to have a fluid definition, we do not have children with three biological parents. This raises the need for ethical consideration of the social situation we are creating for children through this process. How will parental rights be determined? Would this be treated as a contractual agreement or a family law determination? How would custody be determined should something go awry and the relationship (be it contractual or familial) between the three parents changes? Although we could look to situations where a child was conceived through egg donation to get an idea of the answers, this is truly a field without any precedent. Second, three-parent IVF raises ethical concerns regarding potential health risks that could be manufactured through this process. Because this is new process, the children created through it are potentially at risk for health consequences that cannot be known or predicted. I cannot help but think of the situation with Dolly the sheep being cloned and suffering from many health consequences that were unforeseeable at her creation using the (then) new process of cloning. We cannot predict the future, and it is the children without a say in the matter whose future we are gambling with. Finally, there is concern about the application of the three-parent technique. At this point, the three-parent IVF technique is only being promoted to help treat infertility in older women and for treating mitochondrial disease. There is a strong concern, however, that once it is approved for these processes it will subsequently be approved for manipulation of genetic material for other reasons that may not be therapeutic in nature.


0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve Phillips
6 years ago

The safety issue you have mentioned is also an issue of ethical treatment of human research subjects. When we do research on human subjects such as children who are unable to voluntarily enter into that research it is essential that we establish the safety of that research and do not subject an involuntary research subject to any significant harm. The problem with doing so in the case of human germline modification is that the harms may not be evident until the child is an adult or possibly only in the child’s future offspring. To establish the safety of this type of procedure in human beings it would require the study of multiple generations of research subjects in which none of the subjects could consent because they are not in existence when the decision to do the research and to make them research subjects is made. Rebecca Dresser has written quite well on this issue (see reference in my post of 2/26/14).

Elia Haber
Elia Haber
6 years ago

Thank you for bringing up the issue. As to weighing ethical risks versus potential benefits, I’m still unclear on how much of a problem are we actually solving. Do the numbers warrant such a risk?

I really think the legal framework should be developed side by side to protect both parents/donors and future children. In this case, science should be really cautious moving forward without the proper framework.