How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent
Hello, and welcome back to the Checkup!
This week I found myself back in the classroom, sitting on a small plastic chair and carefully noting down what the teacher told me. It was my first evening with parents. It was coincidental that I had just listened to ethicists discuss what it meant to be a parent a few days before.
It’s a huge question–and one that is changing in light of new reproductive technologies that are transforming the way we make families. These technologies are often viewed with the baby in our minds. Are they likely to have an impact on the baby’s health and well-being?
But most people seek these treatments to become parents. Heather Draper, a bioethicist from the University of Warwick, stated at the Amsterdam meeting that assisted conception does not have the primary purpose of creating a child but the creation of parents .”.
Advances in reproductive technologies are forcing us to reconsider what it means to be a parent–even at the genetic level. IVF allows parents to use eggs and donor sperm from others. This may or may not be beneficial for the child’s future. It’s not only IVF. There are technologies that allow for three-generation babies. Others that allow for four or more genetic parents may be available in the near-term.
This kind of progress raises important questions. What is it about a person’s genetic contribution that makes them a parent? Is there a limit to the number of parents a child could have? Do genetics really matter?
The question came to the fore around six years ago, when a doctor in New York revealed that he had used a new technology that led to the birth of a “three-parent baby.” The baby’s mother carried genes for a potentially fatal disease in her mitochondria–components of the cell that provide energy. The doctor and his colleagues used mitochondrial genetic DNA from a donor as well as the woman’s egg and her partner’s fertilized sperm to get around this.
The resulting baby technically had three genetic parents, even though the donor mitochondrial DNA was only a small fraction of his total DNA. Scientists claimed that this meant that the term “three parent baby” was not applicable. This implies that there is a cutoff. What percentage of a baby’s DNA must you contribute to be considered a father? The technique is used in a few clinics today to prevent parents from passing on mitochondrial diseases to their children. In most cases, the donor of mitochondrial DNA may not be related to the baby and will not have any further contact.
But mitochondrial DNA could be an important genetic link to a child for some. For example, two women might want to have a child together and use one of their eggs or sperm from a donor. The baby in these cases is genetically related only to one of the women. The other woman’s mitochondrial DNA would also be a link to the baby, but it would be a smaller one.
Four or more parents?
There are other technologies that could allow more people to be genetic parents of a baby. Scientists are currently working to convert human skin and blood cells into sperm and egg cells in the laboratory. This has been done in mice. The possibilities of biological parenthood are even greater if they can do it in humans.
The first application would allow same-sex couples with genetically related children. One example is to make a man’s skin into an egg cell and then fertilize it with his partner’s sperm to create an embryo. You could also create another sperm from the embryo using the same technology. This could be done with sex cells taken from two couples to create an embryo with four genetic contributors.
Things get even more complicated here because the four adults involved would actually be grandparents and the embryos that were created in the middle would be the baby’s parents. These babies would technically be orphans, according to some scientists. Others see it differently. They would have four parents.
A genetic connection is not what makes someone a parent. A parent does not provide DNA. It is the person who cares for the child and creates a safe environment for them.
You don’t have to be the biological parent of a child to do this. This is obvious, but it’s also supported by data from Vasanti Jadva at University College London. Jadva and her colleagues have followed the progress of 223 children born around 2000. While 80 of the children were conceived in the typical way, 51 resulted from egg donation, 50 were conceived with sperm donation, and 42 were gestated by a surrogate. However, there was no significant difference in the children’s well-being during their childhoods.
By the age of two, children conceived from surrogates and donors had no differences in their cognitive, social, or emotional development. They had more positive relationships with their parents than children conceived in the traditional way.
They didn’t seem to be concerned about the circumstances of their conception. By the time they were 21 years old, most of them weren’t concerned about having been born through egg or sperm donation or surrogacy, Jadva said at the meeting in Amsterdam.
Draper said she “doesn’t get” the importance some people seem to place on genetic parenthood. She said that an obsession with biological connectedness can lead to non-biological parents being viewed as second-best parents. This is actually quite offensive.
I’ve been thinking about these words ever since I heard them. I tend to agree with the majority of your points. Fulfilling your parental responsibilities does not depend on how much DNA you have with your child. We must also remember that biological parenthood is essential for many people. It’s technically possible. Why shouldn’t everyone have this option, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or health status?
It’s a difficult one. In the meantime, I will be focusing on my parental duties, which may include catching up on homework, trying to limit screen time and processed foods, or just finding more cuddle time. My daughter’s teacher said that she already has an interest in science. I will take this as a win.
There’s lots more to read from the Tech Review archive:
I recently took an in-depth look at the race to make human egg and sperm cells in the lab …
… which followed on from a piece my colleague Antonio Regalado wrote last year, when he covered the work of Conception, one of the biotech companies attempting to do just that.
In 2017, a year after the birth of the “three-parent baby,” Emily Mullin described how the doctor behind the case was planning to use the same approach to rejuvenate eggs.
Other scientists are working on ways to mature the eggs of transgender men in the lab, which could help them have genetically related children …
… and the “three-parent” approach could be useful here too.
From around the web
Researchers at Boston University have been generating new versions of the coronavirus in the lab. University representatives said the new virus was no more dangerous than the “original” found in Wuhan, but it still killed 80% of infected mice. (STAT)
Is aging a disease? The debate continues. (MIT Technology Review)
Three hundred thousand chickens are due to be culled in the Netherlands after a highly infectious strain of bird flu was found on a farm. In the last year, 6 million birds were culled in the country. (Reuters)
Public schools in Texas are about to start sending children home with DNA kits. This is an attempt to give parents information that might be useful in an emergency, but it could make families more nervous about school shootings. (Motherboard)
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.