Three Parents and A Child’s Need to Know Genetic Heritage

This is really just a tiny little post, because I’ve this question kicking around in my mind.  I read this post the other day that’s all about the mDNA and three-parent reproduction or whatever we are going to call it.

I’ve been persuaded over time that children should be able to have access to information about their genetic lineage if they want.   And I would include in that contact information for the person who provided gametes.   (I am well aware that we might call that person different things–genetic parent, parent, donor, whatever.  I’m skipping that point right now.)

I reach this conclusion because it seems apparent that to some people it is extremely important information, intertwined with their sense of identity.    I do not really understand why–I might speculate that this is socially constructed. But perhaps it doesn’t matter why because for people who have this experience/need it is real and not having access to information can be hurtful.

(I’ll just put a little marker here–the worst, in my book, is when people are not honest about things.  Failing to tell children the story of their conception is a different but also hurtful thing.  Even if one cannot give children the information they want (because you don’t have it, say) you can at least be honest with them about that.)

Anyway, the blog notes (and I’m going to assume this is right) that mitochondria contribute 37 genes out of the roughly 25,0000 genes we have.  As I understand it, the mDNA does not contribute to any of the traits like hair color, eye color, skin color, etc.   It’s not that those 37 genes are unimportant, because the whole reason for the three-parent technique is to address the consequences of problematic mDNA.   But as far as I can tell mDNA has nothing to do with what we think of as heritable traits.

So here’s the question I wonder about.  Imagine a child created using the nuclear DNA of a man and woman who raise the child and the mDNA of another woman–someone who donated an egg for the purpose.   Might the child have the same felt need to know the mitochondrial donor that some people have to know the egg/sperm donors who were involved in their conception?  Do those 37 genes contribute enough so that they, too (at least for some people) are key to understanding your identity?

I’m interested in this question.  This does not have to do with whether or not one should use this new technique.   It has to do with whether we need to take the same steps to give kids access to information about the mDNA provider as we do about egg/sperm donors.

And then there’s the flip side.   Will women think about providing mDNA in the same way they think about perhaps providing an egg?   I’m inclined to think not, but I don’t know, of course.   A woman who gives up an egg might look at every child she sees to see if she sees her eyes, her hair, her features, etc.   A woman who gives up mDNA wouldn’t really do that, would she?

All just food for thought.  Which somehow reminds me I need to go do the dinner dishes.

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25 responses to “Three Parents and A Child’s Need to Know Genetic Heritage

  1. Hi Julie, as you probably know the UK is on the brink of being the first country in the world to legislate to allow mitochondrial donation. Currently the recommendation is that donors will remain anonymous. I took part in the extensive consultations that took place prior to the question being put to Parliament and at first was persuaded that anonymity was acceptable because of the lack of heritable traits being found in the 37 genes contributed by the mitochondria. However, I have since changed my mind and feel that the principle of identifiability for gamete donors (as established in the UK in 2004 and acted on in 2005) should be retained. Mitochondrial donation is different to full egg donation, but the principle of openness feels an important one to maintain, both in and of itself and because SOME children/young people/adults may find that information about the woman who gave her mitochondria to help them live healthy lives, is important to them in the future.
    Our second house (the Lords) is debating the whole issue of mitochondrial donation next week and we hope that they will pay more attention to the issue of anonymity/identifiability than their colleagues in the Commons, who barely questioned the recommendation of anonymity.

    • I am embarrassed to say I forgot about the House of Lords.

      Your comments really help me think about two different reasons for identifiability. One is narrow and has to do with heritability. The other is broader and is captured nicely by what you call “the principle of openness.” I think I am with you on this.

      I should also probably be clear that endorsing a principle of openness does not mean necessarily giving the mDNA provider any legal status vis-à-vis the child. I think you can have openness and also say the person has no parental status at all–and that is what I am inclined to suggest, at least as of now.

    • Olivia HUGE APPLAUSE for maintaining a consistent stance of this. Big hug and think of the long term public health implications of not keeping track of these women and their children. Bottom line is that the mother provides the mitochondrial DNA so, like it or not, she’s the mother. I don’t really know what to call the other woman, maybe just ‘Other”? Father Mother and Other

      • I’m somewhat confused. Are you saying you would call the mDNA provider mother but not the woman who provided the nuclear DNA? That seems odd to me, to say the least.

        I think I should note in general, though, that this is really just about how you would use terminology–who you would call what. We all have to make our own choices about usage.

        • Every medical text book says that mitochondrial DNA comes from the Mother only. Well you can’t have it both ways. Who is it that is providing the component that is uniquely maternal? Who is providing that essential building block which comes down the maternal line.

          It is not MY terminology. The limited discussion with regard to what the call the three parent baby is not talking about three social legal parents and therefore if you have three parents who reproduce to create you and the father is the one that provides the sperm and the mitochondrial DNA comes only through the mother and all these medical issuse are specifically described as related to the Mother’s Mitochondrial DNA and all kinds of forensic testing and medical research describes these certain diseases as being inherited from people’s mothers then it would be appropriate to refer to that woman who provides it as the person’s mother in the medical biological text book sense of the word.

          We bring way too much sentimentality into discussions based on who we want to put forward as the parents of a child and it clouds our judgement and our speach to the point where we make no sense at all. I’m sure that the woman planning to raise the child wants to be thought of as the child’s mother especially if she’s reproducing and the child will be her offspring. But for medical purposes when we talk about imaternal inheritance she’s not the her offsprings mother. So what is she? She is a parent without question, but not the mother or the father not in terms that people use in science and medicine. Is there no area of language that is not subject to the sanitizing wipe of political correctness anymore? Must everything become subject to change based on our own personally defined ‘narratives

          • I think the medical textbooks only meant to imply that the father does not provide mDNA. I doubt that the authors of most of them were thinking about what labels to use in these three parent cases. Nor were they thinking about legal designations.

            I won’t fight with you (and won’t post more comments on this for now) but it is your terminology. You want to call the woman who provides the mDNA a “mother?” Fine. Others may also do so. I’m not sure I do want to use that label. I might try out “mitochondrial mother”–an odd term to be sure, but descriptive. I am wary of using terms like “mother” and “father” without modifiers because (as illustrated with the medical textbooks you quote) the language can slip over from one context to another. If we are specific in our terminology then we can have an intelligible conversation about whether a mitochondrial mother should also be consider a legal mother.

  2. m,
    Your mistake is assuming that mtDNA has any characteristics that will be become part of the child’s genotype. There is nothing more than 37 genes that do not combine with the man’s sperm. These play vital roles within the cells pertaining to energy production, protein building, and how genes may be triggered. The child will not inherit anything from such a donor. However, it will be the genes of the actual mother whose nucleus is inside the new ovum. Only that part of the ovum is fertilized by the sperm. The child will still be the result of combining the 25,000 genes within the 23 chromosomes of both parents to create a unique individual, with over 8 million possible combinations. The 37 genes of the mtDNA are so primitive that they predate animal life. They are circular and replicate by themselves through simple cell division without any influence from the genome of the child or vice versa and remain outside the nucleus of the ovum. There are no combinations involving the ovum donor since her chromosomes have been removed. It is absurd to call her a mother. Medical textbooks do not say that mtDNA make the woman a child’s mother, it’s her chromosomes that make her so. Saying the mtDNA comes from the mother is true but not significant regarding what the child inherits from the somatic and sexual genes. ………………………………………………………….. A child may want to contact the ovum donor only to thank her for making life possible, much like any organ donor. A person receiving a bone marrow transplant will indeed have genes from that donor within the blood cells but without any impact on his genome or what he or she will pass on to a child.

    • Personally I would absolutely want to know who that other person/mother was whose mitochondrial dna I carried in every cell of my body that I would also pass down to my children and children’s children etc. It’s absolutely not like a kidney or any other kind of organ donor. It’s certainly more than just a 10 month gestational ‘relationship’ (as in a ‘gestational surrogate’). Bill, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. Are you concerned that the source of mitochondrial dna might be equated as having the same ‘identity’ importance as the source of a full gamete provider (genetic father/mother)? And therefore might be used to reduce that ‘identity’ importance?

      • to Whosedaughter: Yes I am concerned that people will confuse who the mother is, genetically. ‘m’ thinks that the mtDNA donor should be considered the mother but not the woman who receives the mtDNA since, as she says: “for medical purposes when we talk about imaternal inheritance she’s not the her offsprings mother. So what is she? She is a parent without question, but not the mother or the father not in terms that people use in science and medicine.”………… ‘m’ misunderstands the biological maternal inheritance in terms of science and medicine. The woman whose oocyte nucleus (or chromosome spindles) is implanted into the de-nucleated ovum will give her maternal chromosomes to the child and her nuclear DNA will be fertilized by the nuclear DNA from the father’s sperm. It is that woman who gives the essential X-X gene that is uniquely maternal, and even to her sons who will receive one of her x genes. She and her husband will be the genetic mother and father, not the ovum donor. Of course the mtDNA will be carried by the child and passed on to subsequent children if the child is female. However, if you were receiving into your womb an embryo that has the donor’s de-nucleated ovum with your chromosomes implanted, you would not be carrying anything more than that ovum. You would NOT be carrying the donor’s mtDNA in any of the billions of cells in your body, only your own mtDNA. None of your other ovum in your ovaries will be affected by this one implanted ovum. Your child would be receiving one half your genome in combination with one half of your male partner’s genome. Your grandchildren will receive one quarter of your genes. I am not discounting the significance of the mtDNA, except for what impact it has on inheritance. Its main significance is that it helps a woman whose earlier children’s mtDNA developed some fatal mutations (not inherited but caused by some unknown factor of the embryonic process) more likely to have healthy children unaffected by that rare form of disease. Any female child will pass on the donor’s mtDNA but that is not significant to the unique genetic identity of the child or its posterity. If I were that child, I definitely would be interested in knowing the woman who made my life possible but I would not see any characteristics in her that would change my sense of identity. I am donor conceived and have met eight half-siblings from DI, four half-siblings from my genetic father, five of his grandchildren and a few cousins. I saw parts of myself in them that I never saw within the siblings and parents I grew up with. It did change my sense of identity, but I am not a believer in the total importance of DNA alone. My experiences and my own free will also were significant and made me different from everyone else I’m connected to through my DNA. I celebrate the differences as well as the similarities.

        • Identity is a relative word (pun intended). You connected with your ‘half siblings’ because of your shared dna ‘father’ but that is not the only reason why you connected. I don’t care at all about ‘the law’ and who ‘the law’ considers who ‘the mother’ (or ‘father’ or ‘sibling’ or ‘family’) is. These are very personal and spiritual things above and beyond ‘the law’. I am very worried and concerned about the entire process of genetic human modifications, the processes that promote ‘egg donation’ (selling), all the medical risks, the societal normalization of intentional genetic family disconnections and the industrialization (follow the money). I don’t celebrate this. I celebrate the connections and the holistic approach to human reproduction.

          • Connections go beyond just genetic connections in life. There are other bonds in life that people have where genetics are absent that in some cases are greater than any genetic connection.

            • It seems to me it is clearly true that there are all sorts of bonds–social, psychological, genetic and so on. Sometimes some (maybe many) of them overlap. My question (in a broad sense) is which ones should be legally important and what the legal importance should be.

              Under current law, there’s one pre-eminent category of enormous legal significance: legal parent. Everything pales in comparison to that one. One might instead have several categories with legal significance. It would be a major change in law, but that’s not to say it would be a bad thing. And it might correspond better with the complexity you refer to–there being many sorts of bonds.

  3. i do not believe this will be terribly significant to most people conceived this way. the default is two biological parents. i say biological rather than genetic because for some people pregnancy counts as a biological relationship. even if we are to specify two genetic parents, the two genetic parents are identified. when one is missing, their absence is noticed. but i suspect that once the two are identified it will not be terribly important for people to identify a third. just my speculation though.

    • you might get from my reply, that in my view it isn’t the genes themselves that carry meaning, but the social meaning of genes. we are not so far apart on this view. we differ generally as to what the social meanings are, or perhaps as to the extent that individuals can create their own social reality apart from society at large.

  4. is this really the first time? haven’t we discussed in in the past on this blog? what about in the US, what law could possibly prevent mitochondrial donation?

    • It’s been discussed before in a general way. I’m sure you could search “mitochondria” or something like that. But the UK is the first country to contemplate allowing it. I don’t think it is permitted in the US (at least as of now) but I cannot tell you exactly why that is, since the industry generally is unregulated. I think reference to the general lack of regulation in the US may be a little overbroad. The approved forms of ART are typically unregulated, but not everything is approved, perhaps?

  5. Mitochondrial donation has been practised in the US in the past. There are children existing who benefitted from it. But it was banned (sorry, not sure when) and no longer allowed.

    • I never knew that. I guess the technology is not so untested then?

      Thanks for adding that.

      • Julie don’t you think that this will be used by lesbian women so they can both be biological parents whether married or not? I have friends personal friends that did IVF not because they needed to to get pregnant but to swap embryos they each gave birth to the other woman’s baby by the same man. They would have been all over the chance to both reprroduce in the same kid. I think this is way way way bigger for lesbian couples than the right to get married. This gives them a chance. albeit an expensive chance to both have a legal claim based on biology. Watch how many female couples of means will leave the country to go get this done. I bet they are booking their tickets right now.

        • I don’t expect this to happen because I don’t think that the mDNA carries the same weight as the nuclear DNA. I could, of course, be wrong. And probably there’s at least one lesbian couple out there that will use this. (Law of large numbers?) But it seems to me that what carries social meaning is that the child looks like you or has some other genetically inherited characteristic that reminds you of other relatives, etc. I just cannot see how the mDNA will come to carry that much meaning. After all, there must be thousands of people out there with whom I share mDNA (because we are descended through the female line from a common ancestor 500 years ago) and I don’t feel any particular interest in/tie to them.

          But as I say, I could be wrong……

          • Just to add that if the UK parliament legislates to support mitochondrial donation (as they are likely to) then its use will be strictly regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Each case will have to get special permission to have this procedure performed and they are anticipating probably no more than around 25 cases per year, all to women who have previously given birth to children with mitochondrial disease.

    • Julie, thank you so much for responding to my blogpost with your own initiative. I am intrigued by the questions your post has generated, and the ongoing discussion that ensues. I am new to blogging, and it strikes me as a great way to share ideas and concerns about these cutting-edge sciences.

      Olivasview: are you referring to ooplasmic (or cytoplasmic) transfer? I’m learning that the technique was used briefly in the US between 1990-2001, and only 30 pregnancies were conceived. (The long term results are also interesting: http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=6527–see near the bottom of the page) But that was a was a different protocol from what is being used in 3-parent IVF cases. Perhaps I’m missing the literature on when 3-P-IVF was utilized here in the US…? Regardless, thank you for bringing this little known fact to my attention!

  6. My parent's donor is my father

    The Scientific Case Against Three Parent Embryos

  7. I’ve been thinking about this issue too. In one of the debates about this that I attended, I heard a very sensible academic say that perhaps retaining the right to contact donors is not purely about understanding your genetic make-up, but also about understanding the motives and input of everyone who has collaborated in conceiving you. On that basis, there is a case for mitochondrial donors being identifiable, even though their contribution to genetic identity is minimal. I found that very striking, and an interesting perspective which to me seemed to honour the contribution of all egg donors without over-emphasising the importance of genetics. I now think there is a case for mitochondrial donors being identifiable in the way that egg donors are.

  8. The House of Lords tonight approved regulations to allow mitochondrial donation to take place in the UK by a majority of 232.

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