TOPIC GUIDE: Three Parent Babies

"We should embrace the advent of three parent IVF"

PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015

AUTHOR: Brittany L. Johnson

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Experimentation with ‘three-parent babies’ – the use of a female egg donor, and the egg and sperm from the genetic parents - first began in the US in the late 1990’s as a means of treating infertility [Ref: Nature]. The UK government has recently decided to support three parent IVF [Ref: The Times], or ‘mitochondrial replacement’ [Ref: BBC News], and is the first country in the world to do so. The treatment may become available within the next two years, and is aimed at eliminating the otherwise devastating effects of mitochondrial disease; a genetic mutation that affects roughly one in every 5,000 children annually [Ref: Nature]. While such a procedure offers mothers the potential to give birth to healthy, biologically related children, opponents cite safety concerns, and fear such genetic modification will promote a new form of eugenics, setting a precedent for ‘designer babies’ [Ref: Wired]. Supporters of the technique refute these claims, pointing to the groundbreaking nature of the treatment [Ref: BBC News], as well as emphasizing the procedure’s ability to drastically change the lives of children otherwise subject to a catalogue of symptoms including as blindness, seizures, and severe physical disability [Ref: NBC]. In light of this, do we have a moral obligation to prevent death and disease if we possess the ability to do so? Or is manipulating the human genome a step too far, heralding a dangerous new era of designer babies? Should we welcome the advent of three parent IVF, or should we fear the potential unintended consequences?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Ethical Concerns
Current opinion is split on the potential ethical consequences of pursuing an IVF method which would, ultimately, result in a child holding the DNA of three separate individuals. For supporters, the story of Sharon Bernardi, who lost all seven of her children to rare mitochondrial diseases, illustrates the necessity to embrace the potential benefits of the technique [Ref: BBC News]. They dismiss concerns over the ethics of the procedure, instead citing its ability to spare children from early death and lifelong suffering [Ref: Guardian]. Critics though, such as commentator Jessica Cussins, who was born from conventional IVF, feels that it has: “Troubling implications, not only for hopeful parents to be, and their potential future children, but for all humanity” [Ref: Huffington Post]. The modification of the germ line [Ref:], or the heritable part of human DNA, some argue, poses serious questions which have yet to be addressed, about the consequences of manipulating the characteristics of future generations [Ref: Nature]. Critics warn that the impact of the procedure on heredity is largely unknown, and has been underestimated [Ref: Standpoint].There is though disagreement about the importance of mitochondrial DNA to a person’s genetic code, with advocates of the procedure asserting that mitochondrial replacement alters just 0.1% of it [Ref: BBC News], and emphasizing the negligible amount of modification needed to drastically change lives [Ref: Wired]. One of the strongest points of contention stems from the procedure’s preventative nature: namely, that mitochondrial replacement simply inhibits the inheritance of mitochondrial disease, and does nothing to treat or benefit existing victims [Ref: Nature]. Subsequently, critics suggest that scientists should instead be focusing their efforts on alleviating the symptoms of present victims [Ref: Wired], with one writer summarising that: “The attempt to improve future people is not medicine…but a new form of eugenics” [Ref: Huffington Post]. Amidst the ethical issues involved in three-person IVF, two trains of thought seem come to the fore: the belief in a moral responsibility to prevent death and disease if we possess the means and, alternatively, the insistence that we must not allow the excitement of possibility to overshadow ethical implications, that: “...simply being able to do something does not mean we should” [Ref: New York Times].

Slippery Slope?
One of the loudest forms of resistance comes from those who insist that three-person IVF would set a precedent for an ever-widening set of criteria for genetic modification. Opponents such as Lord Winston caution against the technique, arguing that this could be the first step on a slippery slope [Ref: Independent], eventually leading to parents selecting genes based on desirable traits, resulting in ‘designer babies’ and: “...high tech eugenics”, as one critic describes it [Ref: New York Times]. In fact, critics argue, by deliberately choosing to alter an offspring’s characteristics (or lack thereof), some argue that scientists have already progressed to the first stages of eugenics, because it: “...involves the improvement of humans by deliberately choosing their inherited traits” [Ref: Huffington Post]. However, supporters of the technique suggest that fears have been overplayed, maintaining that: “There is a big difference between replacing defective mitochondria, and making sure all babies are blue eyed and blonde” [Ref: Slate], and note that mitochondria play no role in genetic characteristics other than the energy of cells, meaning that no aspect of a child’s personality or physicality is affected by the technique [Ref: NBC]. Advocates go on to say that such concerns about a slippery slope should not dissuade us from grasping the vital benefits of medical breakthroughs such as this [Ref: The Times], because: “Not everything about genetic engineering is morally horrible” [Ref: NBC].

An Unpredictable Future
The unknown implications of the use of this technique have recently come under increased scrutiny. As a result, some critics dismiss the idea that we should: “Celebrate the advent of a new and life enhancing therapy” [Ref: Guardian], and instead describe it as an: “...uncontrolled experiment” [Ref: Huffington Post]. They cite fears over the unpredictability of the treatment’s long-term effects and potential consequences. Melanie McDonagh articulates this uncertainty by arguing that we are attempting to: “Push the boundaries of science ever further, on the off chance that something will happen” [Ref: Telegraph]. In this sense, it is unlike a normal drug trial for instance, because: “...all the unforeseeable risks of the experiment, will be assumed by this future individual” [Ref: New York Times], something which troubles many observers. Others though are more relaxed, and advance the argument that: “Humanity has always innovated and shaped its own physical future through technology” [Ref: The Times], noting that unpredictability is inherent to reproduction, because: “Passing on physical change down the generations, both benign and problematical” [Ref: The Times], is what humanity has always done, and will continue to do. Questions have also been raised about the impact on the nature of parenthood, and the identity of the child in this scenario, something which has forced the UK government to ban prospective children born by the procedure, from ever finding out who the egg donor is [Ref: Telegraph]. However, others question the wisdom of this decision because, for them, three person IVF creates no profound change to how we understand parenthood or identity: “It’s not a child with three parents; it’s a child with two parents and a mitochondrial donor” [Ref: Telegraph], as one commentator argues. Where, then, do we draw the line between a life-saving treatment option with the ability to pass on healthy DNA for generations to come, and a procedure with the potential to open a host of moral and biological consequences? Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Or does three-person IVF indeed mark the top of a very slippery slope?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Three parent IVF is here, and there’s nothing to fear

Paul Raebern Aljazeera 9 April 2014

We should approve three parent IVF

Alex Berezow Real Clear Science 29 July 2013

Misleading talk about three parent babies helps no one

John Harris Guardian 19 September 2012


Former IVF baby on three parent babies

Jessica Cussin Huffington Post 24 October 2013

A slippery slope to germline modification

Dr Mary Darnovsky Nature 9 July 2013

The Chamber of eugenics

Stuart Newman Huffington Post 11 March 2013


The brave new world of three person IVF

Kim Tingley New York Times 27 June 2014

Reproductive medicine: the power of three

Ewen Callaway Nature 24 May 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The three parent technique is genetic modification

Melanie McDonagh Spectator 29 July 2014

Lets change the rhetoric on three parent children

Max Pemberton Telegraph 28 July 2014

Beware alarmists of slippery slopes

Matt Ridley The Times 14 July 2014

We are asking the wrong questions about three parent embryos

Ellen Painter Dollar Patheos 10 July 2014

Fertility ethics tested by three parent babies

Kim Tingley Sydney Morning Herald 5 July 2014

How can a baby have three parents?

Economist 4 July 2014

Litany of unknowns surface over germline modification techniques

Jessica Cussins Biopolitical Times 6 March 2014

Designer babies are not on their way

Jessica Grose Slate 26 February 2014

Three parent babies are an ethical choice

Art Caplan NBC News 26 February 2014

Genetically modified babies

Dr Mary Darnovsky New York Times 23 February 2014

This treatment would save lives

Polly Toynbee Guardian 11 February 2014

Three parent babies? This is science gone mad

Melanie McDonagh Telegraph 29 August 2013

A bold step for science and society

Fergus Walsh BBC News 28 June 2013

Don’t fear three parent babies

New Scientist 20 March 2013

On designer babies

Dr Sheldon Krimsky Tufts Medicine 2013

Three parent IVF would give a kid two mothers

Brian Alexander NBC News 24 October 2012

Three parent babies are worth the ethical risk

Art Caplan NBC News 24 October 2012

Mitochondrial techniques would be ethical

Nuffield Council on Bioethics 12 June 2012


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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