Humans Were Harmed in the Making of this Reality

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While plain old in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has reached small-talk status in the US, we are actually lagging behind in the world of IVF “treatments.” Racing ahead is the UK, where February saw the unleashing of IVF’s latest and greatest, donor mitochondrial IVF, with a 382-128 Parliamentary vote of approval. As some gleefully celebrate in total disregard of scientific warnings, I hear G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Over-civilization and barbarism are within an inch of each other. And a mark of both is the power of medicine-men.”

In order to understand the politicized debate, a mini biology tutorial is necessary. The starting point is the fact that our genetic structure is inherited half from mom and half from dad. Within this inheritance, a tiny part of our genetic structure, called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), can only be inherited from mom. A woman with irregular mtDNA, even if living symptom free, will produce eggs with varying degrees of mtDNA mutation that have varying potential for producing illness in her children. A seldom-mentioned detail is that age-related infertility is directly related to the ageing of mtDNA, which causes difficulties for the uterine implantation of otherwise healthy and normal embryos. Given the trend of postponed childbirth, older women could be a target market for this procedure, but the public debate insists on characterizing the issue as a matter of benevolence toward victims of genetic adversity.

Today there exist two main ways of avoiding mom’s defective or ageing mtDNA. The embryo repair method requires the intended mother’s egg and the donor’s egg to be fertilized by father’s sperm before the mtDNA switch occurs. In the end we discard the unwanted mtDNA and the dismembered donor embryo whose healthy mtDNA has been carved out and implanted into the target mom’s egg. The other technique is the egg repair method, which takes the intended mother’s “nuclear DNA” (containing the blueprint for our essential characteristics)—discarding the rest of mom’s unfertilized egg along with the faulty or old mtDNA—and inserts the nuclear DNA into a donor’s egg that has a healthy mtDNA and has had its own nuclear DNA removed. Both methods are obviously going to be useless in the frequent cases where mtDNA disease stems from anomalies in mom’s nuclear DNA.

Now that we have had a glimpse at what some scientists do for a living, it is only right to consider the other actors in the mitochondria controversy, namely the intended mother and the donor. At the Parliamentary debate in the U.K., the medical and statistical conclusion was that 150 healthy births per year could take place in the U.K. if all suitable candidates opted for the procedure.[1] This number would surely be much higher if the public debate could admit to the possibility of ageing women’s interest in the procedure. There do exist other options for the women who want to avoid passing on unhealthy mtDNA (or for those whose old mtDNA prevents implantation of an otherwise healthy embryo), although some of the alternatives carry identical or similar risks as those of mitochondrial IVF. The most obvious alternative is adoption, without any listed risks. There also exists the possibility of old-fashioned egg donation, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (think: un-natural selection from a petri dish of embryos), and prenatal genetic diagnosis (think: abortion).

As with all IVF procedures, the choice of mtDNA replacement will require “donors,” who receive very little attention within the public debate. We are left with the impression that donating eggs is the equivalent of donating hair. In reality, the process is disturbingly violent. For a healthy woman, only one egg matures per month. In the case of IVF, doctors to use hormones to artificially force multiple maturations at one time. The drugs used to hyperstimulate the ovaries has a host of side-effects. One example is Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS); at its worst, it causes cysts and enlargement of the ovaries, along with massive fluid build-up in the body.[2]

Just before revving up the system for multiple-egg production, doctors will use another drug to shut down a woman’s ovaries. This other drug, usually leuprolide acetate, can also cause a few problems according to the Food and Drug Administration. The list includes blurred vision or blindness, memory loss, burning sensations, severe non-inflammatory joint pain, nausea, depression, loss of libido, hypertension, chronic enlargement of the thyroid, liver function abnormality, and I could go on. The FDA has approved the drug for specific uses, such as the treatment of endometriosis. The FDA has not approved the drug for multiple egg-extraction. However, law has magical powers and allows the non-approved use of a drug as long as the drug has some legal use.

Apart form technical difficulties and risks involved in mitochondria replacement IVF, the process zealously promotes a eugenic mentality. Countless eggs and embryos will be destroyed in the name of creating a privileged few. Then, a social stigma will attach to those children not privileged by mitochondria IVF and those mothers without access the process. We are already tempted to equate physical success—whether it is health, beauty, or ability—with a person’s value. Our mentality will be further damaged if we accept the measures required for the creation of these “dignified” babies. Rather than trying to create dignity, recognition of innate human dignity must be the starting point and basis for all research and inventions. Otherwise, the road to the betterment of human life will only lead to further societal divides.

Would you consider egg donation? How would you like your sister doing it? Or your daughter? I am a selfish and will refrain, but I encourage the generous yes-voters of the UK Parliament. But let us be realistic and admit that the women who will undertake the risks are, to put it bluntly, those strapped for cash. The scientists, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and politicians are selling a false and corrupt product that not only causes physical harm, but also attacks and distorts our society. The product is based on the apparently empowering message of “you are the boss of your own body.” As the global trade of women and children’s bodies evolves, it is difficult to deny the inhuman and enslaving reality of this false message.

Written by Magda Laszlo, a WYANA Intern from New York City.

 


[1] Gorman, Gráinne S.; Grady, John P.; Ng, Yi; Schaefer, Andrew M.; McNally, Richard J.; Chinnery, Patrick F.; Yu-Wai-Man, Patrick; Herbert, Mary; Taylor, Robert W.; McFarland, Robert; Turnbull, Doug M. (2015). “Mitochondrial Donation — How Many Women Could Benefit?”. New England Journal of Medicine: 150130091413004. Available at http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1500960 (last visited March 3, 2015)

[2] Delvigne, Annick and Rozenberg, Serge. “Epidemiology and prevention of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS): a review: a revew” Human Reproductive Update, vol. 8, no. 6, 2002, pp 559-577.