In James S.A. Corey’s 2011 sci-fi novel Leviathan Wakes, James Holden, one of the book’s two main characters, finds himself being questioned by Martian authorities about his non-traditional upbringing on Earth:
“Your file says you were the only child of a family co-op,” Lopez said, acting as though they’d never stopped talking about Holden’s past.
“Yes, five fathers, three mothers.”
“So many parents for only one child,” Lopez said, slowly unwrapping another lozenge. The Martians had lots of space for traditional families.
“The tax break for eight adults only having one child allowed them to own twenty-two acres of decent farmland. There are over thirty billion people on Earth. Twenty-two acres is a national park,” Holden said. “Also, the DNA mix is legit. They aren’t parents in name only.”
“How did they decide who carried you?”
“Mother Elise had the widest hips.”
As an avid fan of the genre, I’ve come to expect the presentation of such oddball concepts as part of the future cultural landscape. Science Fiction authors dream big, and like to challenge assumptions. The book is a rousing space opera that begins a thrilling trilogy, and at the time I read it I filed away the multi-parent situation in whatever part of my brain handles those kind of weird details until I need them for later use.
Evidently, that day is today.
The Associated Press reports that the US government has taken a proposal not altogether different than the one I excerpted above under consideration:
Federal health regulators will consider this week whether to green light a provocative new fertilization technique that could eventually create babies from the DNA of three people, with the goal of preventing mothers from passing on debilitating genetic diseases to their children.
The Food and Drug Administration has framed its two-day meeting as a “scientific, technologic and clinical” discussion about how to test the approach in humans. But the technique itself raises a number of ethical questions, including whether the government should sanction the creation of genetically modified humans.
The FDA panel will hear from several prominent critics who oppose any human testing of the approach, arguing that it could be a slippery slope toward “designer babies,” – in which parents customize traits like eye color, height and intelligence.
But the field’s leading U.S. researcher will be on hand to explain and defend his work, which he describes as “gene correction,” rather than “gene modification.”
“We want to replace these mutated genes, which by nature have become pathogenic to humans,” says Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who will present on Tuesday. “We’re reversing them back to normal, so I don’t understand why you would be opposing that.”
The FDA meeting was prompted by Mitalipov’s research at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, where he and his staff have produced five healthy monkeys using the DNA-replacement technique. He is seeking FDA approval to begin testing in a handful of women who carry defective genes that can lead to devastating diseases in children, including blindness, organ failure and epilepsy.
Things like this always begin for such seemingly noble scientific reasons, don’t they? But they rarely stop there. And of course in addition to creating tri-parent offspring, which creates ethical and genealogical nightmares in its own right, virtually every instance of embryonic modification involves a slew of violations of the moral law, from in-vitro fertilization to the destruction of fertilized human embryos — human life — deemed imperfect or unnecessary to achieve the desired outcome.
What is the likelihood that the FDA would approve such a procedure? More likely than you think.
[M]any experts expect the FDA to eventually sign off on testing the technique. They note that regulators in the U.K. found broad public support for the research there, with no evidence that it would endanger mothers or their children. The U.K. has significantly more regulations surrounding in vitro fertilization than the U.S., where fertilization clinics are essentially a self-regulated industry.
And before the FDA considers the philosophical implications of genetically modified children, its first concern is the safety of any patients enrolled in experiments. In documents posted ahead of this week’s meeting, the agency said it will seek public input on how to monitor the safety of women who undergo the fertilization process. The agency also wants to hear proposals for long-term follow-up of any children produced via the process.
Stanford University Professor Hank Greely says the FDA is taking the right approach by focusing on the immediate safety concerns, rather than speculating on whether this could lead to a “Brave New World” scenario of biologically engineered humans.
“We constantly live on slippery slopes and it’s our job as moral humans to hold a good position on the slope,” said Greely, a law professor who studies medical ethics. “If you’re worried about genetically engineered monsters or superheroes then you try to stop that, you don’t try to stop medically useful interventions because you’re worried that 17 steps down the line it will turn into something we don’t like.”
Her first thought after she heard the news, after she screamed and made her mother and boyfriend leave the room, was that she would never have children. Amanda Baxley’s doctor had just told her, over a speakerphone in her psychiatrist’s office, that she had the gene for Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease, or GSS, which would inevitably lead to her slow and terrible death.
This rare neurological disease had stalked her family for generations. Her father, 56, was even then in its final throes.
On the spot, Ms. Baxley, 26, declared she would not let the disease take another life in her family line, even if that meant forgoing childbirth. “I want it stopped,” she said. The next day, her boyfriend, Bradley Kalinsky, asked her to marry him.
But the Kalinskys’ wedded life has taken a completely unexpected turn, one briefly described on Monday in The Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology. Like a growing number of couples who know a disease runs in the family, they chose in vitro fertilization, and had cells from the embryos, created in a petri dish with her eggs and his sperm, tested first for the disease-causing gene. Only embryos without the gene were implanted. The Kalinskys are now parents of three children who will be free of the fear of GSS.