In an editorial appropriately titled, “This Editorial Is Not About Designer Babies,” the New York Times supported efforts by the Petrie-Flom Center and suggested it was time for Congress to consider lifting the effective ban on mitochondrial replacement therapies — sometimes colloquially but inaccurately referred to as “three-parent IVF.”
The piece referred to the Petrie-Flom Center’s upcoming public event and Roundtable, where experts will have a general conversation about the state of the law in the U.S. and elsewhere and to, as a group, discuss whether the prohibition against MRT might be lifted and, if so, how that might be accomplished.
On Wednesday, the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School will host a round-table discussion, during which the scientists, ethicists and families at the center of this issue will make the first significant attempt to reconcile the federal ban with the federally commissioned report.
The participants will have much to discuss. For starters, proponents of M.R.T. have long held that the procedure should be exempted from the current prohibition, in part because it does not involve altering any genetic code. Defective mitochondria are swapped out for healthy ones, but mitochondrial DNA governs only a handful of basic cellular functions. It is separate from nuclear DNA, which helps determine individual traits like physical appearance, intelligence and personality. That means M.R.T. cannot be used to produce the genetically enhanced “designer babies” that so many people are concerned about.
That’s not to say that the procedure is risk-free. There’s no way to know how safe or effective M.R.T. is until doctors test it in humans. Clinical trials and the American regulatory apparatus were designed for exactly this purpose: to minimize risk without forgoing medical progress. But opponents of mitochondrial replacement therapy say that in this case, to proceed with such trials would be to subject future humans to an experiment that they are powerless to oppose.
Image by Angie Wang for the New York Times.