Three Parents Kids: What Do They Mean for the Future of Sex?
Technology to produce children with three genetic parents is now legal in the UK.
In February, the United Kingdom legalized a controversial form of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that could lead to the creation of children with three genetic parents. The treatment, in which DNA from a donor egg is spliced into the mother’s egg before it is fertilized, could provoke several changes in the way we think about sex and reproduction.
How Does It Work?
Why would someone want to splice together the mother’s egg with a donor egg in the first place? The answer is simple: a little (very little!) thing called mitochondria.
The most important part of a cell is the nucleus, a sort of genetic powerhouse. It is surrounded by a jelly-like fluid. Mitochondria are located inside this fluid. They contain their own unique DNA—called mtDNA—which is distinct from the cell’s other DNA. The trouble is mtDNA can carry some nasty genetic conditions that can be passed down from mother to child.
This new IVF technology was developed so that mothers could stop the transmission of such unfavorable hereditary traits. By inserting the mtDNA from a healthy donor egg, the risk of passing these conditions to the baby is almost nil.
But there is a catch. Even though mtDNA is a tiny part of a child’s genetic makeup—37 genes, whereas the cell’s other DNA contributes about 23,000 genes—it is still part of it. This means that the child ultimately has three parents: mother, father, and donor.
Wired writer Brandon Keim explained this well in 2008 when he said he would urge children with three genetic parents to think about it like this: “Two of your parents gave you a car, but the other one built the engine.”
There have been many ethical objections to this technology, even though children born via this method before it was banned, such as Alana Saarinen in 2000, are apparently happy and healthy.
Philosopher and bioethicist Françoise Baylis outlines four of these objections in a 2013 article published in Reproductive Biomedicine Online:
1) It might cause harm to the egg donor. Donating eggs is not pleasant. It’s one thing to go through it to have your own children, but how can we expect people to go through it so someone else can have children?
2) It will complicate matters for scientific researchers looking at ancestry and genealogy using mtDNA.
3) Because the technology is new, there hasn’t been any research on the long-term effects. What if using donor mtDNA proves harmful to the three-parent children down the line?
4) Isn’t tampering with the genome like this playing God?
However, these objections did not stop the UK from legalizing it. It seems likely that this will be the first step in making this technology legal around the world.
Changing the Way We Think about Sex
Beyond the obvious fact that a lot more children with three genetic parents will be running around (that’s kind of cool!), this technology has other implications for the future of sex.
It opens up the possibility of biological parenthood to a whole new group of people. Lesbian couples will be able to have children with genetic material from both parents, even if they will still need the help of a sperm donor.
It will also allow polyamorous triads, made up of two women and one man, to have kids together that all three of them have contributed to, genetically speaking. Are we going to see a whole new swathe of parenting books targeted at three parents instead of just two?
Clearly, this will change the way we think about parenting—but changing how we think about parenting also changes how we think about sex.
If we look at the history of sex in the twentieth century, one of the biggest developments was the widespread availability of contraception. This is because it meant that sex didn’t necessarily have to lead to reproduction. This technology seems like it could further complicate this link between sex and reproduction, because three-parent kids are obviously created in a lab, not through sex.
So why does this matter? Well, taking reproduction out of the sexual equation means that pleasure can become the absolute number one reason to have sex. You can still have sex to have kids if you want, but what if that option is not open to you, or you want to jump on the three-parent kid bandwagon?
Image source: Ekem