The Case Against Public Investment in Reproductive Genetic Modification

Biopolitical Times
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Philosopher Tina Rulli argues that three-person IVF is not a “life-saving therapy” or even a medical treatment at all. Rulli explains why the technology does not meet a plausible social value standard that would justify public research investment, and why other germline modification techniques may not either.

UC Davis Assistant Professor of Philosophy Tina Rulli published a report titled "What is the Value of Three-Parent IVF?" in the July-August 2016 Hastings Center Report.

If you have seen any of the countless descriptions of three-parent or three-person IVF, also called mitochondrial replacement, as a “life-saving treatment,” you might find the question in the title confusing. How could any life-saving treatment not be of value?

As Rulli explains, the claim that this technology would save lives is “inaccurate and exaggerated.” Three-person IVF would not cure, treat, or save anyone. At best, it would allow women affected by a particular kind of mitochondrial disease to have an unaffected child who is mostly genetically related to her.  

The experimental procedure works by genetically engineering an embryo to combine the intending mother’s nuclear DNA with another woman’s mitochondrial DNA. The choice a woman would make is not “do I save my child?” but “do I want to have a child in this way?” Rulli makes a strong argument that these are not morally equivalent, and that it is irresponsible to act as though they are.

How one thinks about this distinction between creating an unaffected genetically related child and saving lives may have implications well beyond three-person IVF. As Rulli points out, the creating-saving distinction probably holds for any form of germline genetic modification:  


The argument here might provide a template for objections to other germline modifications or gene therapies that are valuable solely or primarily because they may enable prospective parents to have healthy genetically related children who would not otherwise exist.


For example, it would probably mean that the experiment carried out in April using CRISPR to introduce an HIV-resistant mutation into the DNA of embryos could also not be called a life-saving treatment, even if it worked well (it didn’t) and even if it was going to be used to generate a person with altered risk factors (it wasn’t).

Rulli further undermines the medical relevance of three-person IVF by pointing out that it isn’t the most effective way to reduce the transmission of mitochondrial disease. Only a small subset of mitochondrial disease could even hypothetically be addressed by this technology, since most cases involve mutations in nuclear DNA (instead of or in addition to mutations in mitochondrial DNA). And the procedure would only be accessible to women with far more financial resources than most have.

The alternative to three-person IVF – using an entire egg (rather than an egg that has had its nucleus removed) provided by another woman – would completely eliminate the risk of transmitting mitochondrial disease. In other words, the real value of the experimental procedure is not about health at all, but about the personal preference to have a genetic connection to one’s child. Rulli refers to this as “medicalization of a social preference” that works by “preserving the dominance of the bionormative family schema.”

Based on these points, Rulli asserts that three-person IVF lacks the social value that proponents have claimed for it, and that would be a necessary precondition of ethical clinical research, both in order to use limited health resources responsibly and to avoid human exploitation. She therefore concludes, despite the Institute of Medicine’s report endorsing the potential of “clinical trials,” that any public research investment in three-person IVF would be unethical.

Rulli reaches this conclusion even without addressing the multiple safety and efficacy concerns that have cropped up regarding three-person IVF. She takes it for granted that the technology will do what it says it will do. But she does note:

If the concerns about the safety of three-parent IVF for children and future generations are legitimate, then these considerations are not over-ridden by proponents’ claims about the great, life-saving potential of this technology. We know those claims to be fictional.

Throughout the push for legalization of these three-person IVF techniques, some advocates have painted any concern raised as anti-science or anti-technology. Rulli takes pains to point out that she is neither. Her argument is not against the technology per se, but whether to invest public resources in its development when the opportunity cost of that research includes, among other things, diminishing resources for investigating treatments for people suffering from mitochondrial diseases today.

Given the firestorm of attention to CRISPR, and the relative ease of genetically modifying an embryo versus an adult, we may well see arguments about germline gene editing as a “life-saving treatment.” Proponents are already pointing to three-person IVF as a pioneer technology that is paving the way for other forms of germline modification, so it is critical to set the record straight. Rulli’s report will be a useful framework to have on hand.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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