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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Does God Need Our Help?

On Monday, a friend sent me two articles dealing with scientific efforts to help women whose eggs carry genetic disorders to have healthy children. The first one was entitled "Combining the DNA of Three People Raises Ethical Questions" by Rob Stein and can be viewed at http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/11/10/360342623/combining-the-dna-of-three-people-raises-ethical-questions. The second article was entitled "The girl with three biological parents" by Charlotte Pritchard and can be viewed at http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28986843.

The NPR article discusses the devastating effects of mitochondrial disease on the parents and children of those afflicted with these disorders. Defective mitochondrial DNA causes the cells to not work properly - to "run out of energy." As a consequence, children can die shortly after birth or suffer for years only to die as they reach adulthood. Because the problem is genetic, there isn't any effective way to treat or help these children. To address the root cause of the problem, scientists have replaced the damaged mitochondrial DNA from an embryo with the healthy DNA of another embryo. The nuclear DNA of the couple with the problem remains intact. This is the source of the controversy: Although the nuclear DNA makes up the overwhelming majority of the new baby's DNA, he/she will also have a small portion of the DNA of a third person (technically one could say that the baby would have three biological parents instead of two). Could this technology be applied to make designer babies? What does the procedure portend for future generations?

The BBC article points out that there are already somewhere between thirty to fifty people alive in the world who have DNA from a third person. The article profiles a young girl that is the product of a procedure called cytoplasmic transfer. In this procedure, some mitochondrial DNA from a healthy woman's egg was injected into the woman's egg with the defective DNA prior to fertilization. The result: A woman who had been unable to have a baby for ten years was finally able to produce a healthy daughter. Nevertheless, in twelve other attempts at the same procedure, two fetuses were missing an X chromosome. Another child that resulted from the procedure was later found to have developmental problems. The article also points out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put an end to the procedure in 2002 "due to safety and ethical concerns."

I have to admit that I was perplexed and troubled after reading these articles. Although I am not opposed to the principle of scientific research to help with these types of issues, I am worried about manipulating a human germline without a full understanding of how it will impact future generations and the health of our species as a whole. In short, it seems to me that scientists simply don't know enough yet to start manipulating the human genetic code. Although it is certainly a noble and good thing to want to help parents with these issues, I am reminded of the old saying that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

I was also reminded of the story of another person who decided that God needed some help in producing a child. We read in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis that God had promised Abram a son who "shall come forth out of thine own bowels" to be his heir. (Genesis 15:4) Nevertheless, his wife Sarai thought that God needed her help. Notice: "And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai." (Genesis 16:2) We all know the rest of the story. Sarai grew to resent her maid and the child that was born through her. Eventually, Abram had to put the maid and the child whom he loved out of his house - causing great heartache and suffering for all concerned. (Genesis 21) In short, Sarai and Abram had to learn the hard way that God didn't need any help in producing a child for them.

To be sure, it is heartbreaking when anyone who wants a child is unable to have one; and that's why I hope that scientists will continue to research ways to help them. However, in our desire to help them, we don't want to do something that we may regret a hundred years from now. Perhaps a little humility is needed. Maybe we should be asking ourselves: Does God really need my help in this instance? What do you think?

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