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February 11, 2015updated 01 Feb 2016 10:38am

Creation of 'three person babies' raises questions about parenthood and identity

By Spear's

Parliamentary approval for mitochondrial donors will mean scrupulous regulation but means question marks over antecedents and designer babies says Michael Wells-Greco

After several years of public consultation and careful deliberation, last week the UK parliament approved the use of mitochondrial donation techniques in fertility treatments.

It’s a legislative first in Europe. It will save lives. The media have declared this to be giving the green light in the UK to ‘three parent babies’, but of course the reality is much more complex – legally and philosophically.

Permitting mitochondrial DNA transfer will significantly reduce the number of children born with genetic mitochondrial disease – that’s around 1 in 6,500 in the UK. Mitochondria are the power packs within cells and – if they do not function properly – can result in a range of debilitating conditions.

Preventing suffering and premature deaths should be celebrated, and it will certainly have an enormous impact on couples andfamilies at risk of passing on mitochondrial disorders. But it is also true that this new law, while tightly regulating the use ofmitochondrial transfer, may have a bigger impact than we think on society’s attitudes towards parenthood and identity.

From a legal standpoint, it’s interesting that there is no one legal basis to determine parentage: genetics, gestation and intention can all play a role. Sperm donors, for example, who are registered with a UK clinic and donate to unknown recipients are not the legal father of a resulting child (though the situation can be a little murkier if he knows the recipient, or if conception takes place at home and not in a clinic). A UK sperm donor is therefore protected from any insurance, legal or financial claims, though children born via the use of his sperm can trace their identity when they reach eighteen.

The situation will be rather different for ‘three person babies’. A mitochondrial donor will not be the genetic mother of a child born via the technique. She won’t pass genetic traits to the child; two children with the same mitochondrial donor won’t even be siblings.
Because she won’t be considered related to any child born using her donated egg material, those children will never be able to trace her identity. Instead, they’ll only be able to access ‘limited, non-identifying donor information’. But what this information will constitute is still an open question.

Knowing their antecedents is, for many people, a defining component of their identity. Though a mitochondrial donor will not be a parent in any scientific or legal sense, there may well be some future children who view limited access as unfair. The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority will be consulting on this and other questions before any licences are granted. There is also the possibility that once a technology is developed, it may be used in unintended or even unethical ways. The chances of this are vanishingly small somewhere like the scrupulously-regulated UK, but there may be fertility experts in other parts of the world with fewer qualms.

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Mainstreaming mitochondrial transfer once again raises the spectre of designer babies – where traits such as gender, intelligence, looks or personality are selected. We’re not there yet, but ‘three person babies’ illustrate the inherent possibilities.

There are between 30 and 50 people already living with some kind of biological material from a ‘third person’, including teenager Alana Saarinen, whose understanding of how she was made appears very well adjusted. But many questions remain.

Michael Wells-Greco is a partner and international family lawyer at Charles Russell Speechlys

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