Thursday, February 5, 2015

Three parents, one baby

by Gideon Lasco, MD

This week's medical headline is the British parliament’s decision to allow “three-parent babies” - babies conceived through in-vitro fertilisation with the genetic material from three different persons.

The fine print is far less dramatic. The intent of the law is to help treat diseases of the mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the human cell, which is estimated to affect 1 in 4000 babies. By replacing the mitochondrial DNA, any disease that the parents have will not be passed on to the baby. The mitochondria actually has its own mode of inheritance, and researchers say that replacing its DNA will not affect any traits of the body. In fact, they say that the “third parent” - a female donor - will only contribute 0.01% of the baby’s total DNA.

These assurances, however, have not stopped various sectors, including religious groups, from opposing the move. Others have raised their fears that this law can open a Pandora’s box of eugenics, leading to “designer babies”: the idea that a baby’s genetic make-up can be designed i.e. to have blue eyes, tall stature, and the intelligence of Albert Einstein.

Part of the newsworthiness of the story draws from the fact that we are used to two-parent babies: an egg and a sperm combining to form a zygote which then becomes a baby.

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The idea that there can be more than two biological parents, however, has been around in some cultures around the world. The classic example is that of some tribes in Tibet, where people practiced fraternal polyandry, or brothers sharing a single wife. Scholars eventually found 53 more societies where polyandrous unions were allowed. Unlike our biological sperm-meets-egg “explanatory model” for having a baby, in some cultures it believed that a baby is formed by the accumulation of sperm through repeated intercourse, a belief that anthropologist Stephen Beckerman calls “partible paternity”. Thus, the different men who were all husbands to the same wife were seen as all fathers of her offspring, regardless of the actual “father”.

What makes the "three-parent babies" law radical is that in provides scientific certainty of having three parents in the biological (i.e. genetic) sense, which runs counter to our way of conceptualising biological parenthood.  Anthropologist Mary Douglas once theorised that taboos come from violations of culturally-held systems of classification. Her theories remain relevant in our age of genetics: the idea of three parents contributing to a single progeny is repulsive because babies would be seen as “taxonomic anomalies”; they violate our way of looking at persons as having, in the biological sense, a single mother and a single father.

On the other hand, supporters argue that people should not let their prejudices get in the way of life-saving treatment. They point to organ transplants, fairly routine in the West, as examples of people having different DNA material in their body. As for fears that this will lead to “designer babies”, even supporters are divided. How far can technology go?

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As we observe developments like this from the Philippines, we need not do so with the fear or expectation that they are “coming soon” in the country. There is more than one road to progress but looking at different cultures and the changes that are unfold among them allows us to look at our own with deeper insight - and with a more open mind.

One important insight from the British law is that we can never separate the biological from the social. Notwithstanding the mere 0.01% genetic material that would come from the donor, it is enough to make her be seen in the popular imagination as a “third parent”. Would the future baby be allowed to get to know his or her third parent? How would their dynamics be like? In the US, some laws disallow organ transplant recipients from getting in touch with their donors or their donors’ family, but medical anthropologist Margaret Lock demonstrated that despite this, recipients do yearn for connections with donors’ families, and some organ recipients feel the personality of the donor shaping their own, even though there is no “scientific” reason for that to happen - a case of what Lock terms “local biologies”.

In the Philippines, while we do not have "third parents” in the biological sense, we often speak of parents other than our official ones. An example would be cases where paternity is in doubt. Also, in our age of overseas work, we find not just fathers becoming “mothers”, but grandparents becoming parents to their grandchildren. Of course, adopted children have two sets of parents, and while they may yearn to know their biological ones - a recurrent theme in our telenovelas - surely their bonds with their adoptive parents are no less strong than those of non-adopted children with their biological ones, even with no DNA between them.

Perhaps before we consider the ramifications of three-parent babies, we need to firstly contemplate on what parenthood is all about.

Quezon City
February 5, 2015

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