The Latest Frontiers of Mad Scientist Ethics

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Wesley Smith brings up the cutting edge of moral questions that our society probably isn’t going to address with the seriousness that it deserves:

… doctors in the UK are going to undertake a biotechnological procedure to have the first state-sanctioned 3-parent babies born in order to prevent the mothers from passing on mitochondrial disease. From the Guardian story:

To perform the procedure, doctors create a fertilised egg using IVF as normal. But rather than letting it develop into an embryo, the parents’ chromosomes are removed and placed inside a donor egg that has had its own genetic material removed. The embryo so created has all of the parents’ chromosomes, but the mother’s damaged mitochondria are replaced with the donor’s healthy ones.

Smith characterizes this as follows:

Once the IVF fertilization is completed, the result IS a new human life come into being, a one-celled embryo, known as a zygote. When the nucleus of that embryo is removed, that very nascent human life is destroyed and its nuclear genetic materials used to create a different human life.

Thus the question of what constitutes life moves down to an even more minute level.  The zygote is clearly a human life, inasmuch as, if left uninterrupted from the natural course of things, he or she will thereafter follow the course of human development of his or her own volition.

Not as clear, however, is whether the complete zygote is the essence of the human being.  In a natural pregnancy, the zygote will rely on the environment of the womb, yet nobody would argue that a zygote removed to a suitable alternative has been killed and cloned.  The egg seems more intrinsic to the young life than is the womb, but is it irreducibly so?  Or is it more analogous to an organ transplant?

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However one answers that question, Smith’s additional objection should be much less controversial:

This manipulation has been authorized by the Parliament. Too bad, because it is rank human experimentation, the safety of which cannot be known empirically because it has never been done before.

He quotes one of the researchers’ saying that they must follow up with the children after they’re born in order to determine “whether this is the right thing to do.”  Sadly, if it turns out to have been the wrong thing to do, it will have already been done, which means it shouldn’t have been done.



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