I remember years ago being on The Montel Williams Show when the topic was “extreme baby-making.” I was pitted against women who had gone through many forms of assisted reproductive technologies in order to conceive. And, of course, there was the reproductive endocrinologist who offered her expert voice in favor of “advances in science and medicine.” I had the daunting task of being the lone voice of concern and critique — a hard duty given all of the pain, grief, and desperation of people struggling to conceive.
One woman on the show had left America to have a child using the three-parent embryo method. She was now raising, in her description, a happy and healthy child and was making the case for this technology to be available here. When asked why she went to such an extreme as to use experimental technology in a foreign country, she explained how she wanted to have a child who would at least have some of her DNA. I recall feeling horrified that she was so desperate and selfish as to subject her future child to untested human experimentation. The news that there has been no follow-up, until now, of the children conceived through the three-parent method comes as no surprise.
Fast-forward to over a decade later and there are two things we know for sure. Egg harvesting is risky to the young egg donor’s health, and we still don’t know if this procedure is healthy for the children created by this method.
The medical process required for egg retrieval — a necessary step in the three-parent embryo process — is lengthy and involves numerous hazards. Risks include ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome due to superovulation. Add to the list loss of fertility, ovarian torsion, blood clots, kidney disease, premature menopause, ovarian cysts, chronic pelvic pain, stroke, reproductive cancers, and, in some cases, death. These are not just mere possibilities or conjecture — they have all been documented in major medical and scientific studies.
An article in Science magazine (September 2013) documented the significant health concerns of the three-parent embryo process in mice:
Studies on model organisms, ranging from mice to fruit flies, indicate that MR [mitochondrial replacement] can profoundly change the expression profiles of nuclear genes and affect a range of important traits such as individual development, cognitive behavior, and key health parameters. These studies also suggest that males of reproductive age are particularly sensitive to MR-induced effects.
The authors conclude that we should hesitate to move forward with such technology on humans because of the risks we already know it presents in animal studies.
Unfortunately, the desire for a child at any cost means that fertility clinics and governments alike are willing to risk both the health of young women who are egg donors and the health of children who are created from this process.
The United Kingdom has indicated that it plans to move forward on three-parent embryos, likely within the next year. The U.K. is responsible for giving the world in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a procedure that has massive failure rates, close to 80 percent worldwide. It was also in the U.K. that scientists produced Dolly the sheep, which gave momentum to the push toward human cloning.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether to allow the use of the three-parent embryo method here at home. Let’s hope that these past failings finally serve as a warning sign for us not to follow their lead.
— Jennifer Lahl is the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture.