The wonders of modern science seem to consistently produce new questions for us to ponder. I will turn from my current topic to consider this story.
You can read the story to get a better idea of the science (I am no expert) but the basic idea is this: Two female monkeys donate eggs. The mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) from one is combined with the nuclear DNA of the other. The resulting egg is then fertilized. The resulting offspring have DNA from three sources–the two female monkeys and the one male monkey.
The reason for doing this is that it is possible to have mDNA that could cause various serious diseases while you have perfectly fine nuclear DNA. In such a case, a woman (for the idea would be to use the technique with humans, of course) could provide an egg which could then be combined with health mDNA from a donor and end up with a child that carries her nuclear DNA. The article says that mDNA comprises only about 1% of our DNA in the end, so the predominant genetic relationship would be with the source of the nuclear DNA, though there is also a genetic link back to the source of the mDNA.
The point of all this, as far as I can see, is that it allows more people to create children who are both genetically related to them and healthy. Given the desire for genetically related children, I’m sure we’ll find that there is a market for this technology. (And given the on-going debates about health care coverage, I cannot help but wonder whether this should be covered by health insurance. For myself, I’m inclined to think not.)
As the article notes, the new technology once again raises the debate over designer babies. That’s a topic I was thinking about recently anyway.
I’ve written before about the extent to which children can be purchased these days. There’s a lively market for sperm and eggs, and of course people make their choices based on the characteristics they want in a child. But the designer baby problem isn’t limited to places where gametes are bought/sold. Even where payment is prohibited or restricted (say the UK or Canada) I’d imagine people are given choices.
What I mean is this–if you are using donor sperm for some reason (you might be a single woman or you might be a lesbian couple or you might be a heterosexual couple where the male does not produce usable sperm) surely the clinic you work with gives you a choice of sperm. (I suppose I could be wrong about this for the UK or Canada and maybe someone could tell me if I am?)
Anyway, given the choice, the consumer will have to use some criteria to make it. Surely no one walks in and says “I’ll take pot-luck.” At the very least, I’d guess people select based on race of the donor (and there’s a whole other story to be told) but often I think other characteristics come into play–build, hair color, eye color, musical talent and so on. For obvious reasons, heterosexual couples often seek donors who resemble the male half of the couple.
What I mean to suggest is that the very possiblity of using donor sperm creates the likelihood of shopping for various characteristics which is the core of the designer baby problem.
This suggests to me that the problem is inevitable and is one we must consider in more detail. Perhaps exercising some choice in selecting your sperm donor is meaningfully different from paying a 20K bonus for eggs from a woman who is over 5’11” and goes to an Ivy League school, but it would be good to sort out exactly how it is different.
I’m not really sure I see the designer baby problem in the new technology that got me started here. As far as I can tell the person shopping is likely to be the woman with the flawed mDNA (and whoever she is partnered with, if she is partnered) and all she is likely to seek is health mDNA. For me, at least, the more interesting question might be what to think about how important it is to have a child who carries one’s DNA at all.