Three person embryo fertilization: Why should Christians be concerned? Print
Baby in utero, MONTH ONEFor you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. ..I am fearfully and wonderfully made… intricately woven. . . your eyes saw my unformed substance. . .the days formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:13-16

This week an FDA committee is hearing from proponents and critics of an embryo fertilization technique that includes DNA from three persons. Scientists developing the fertilization process cite as their motivation the suffering of women with mitochondrial disease, a genetic abnormality passed on through women to their children. The fertilization process removes diseased mitochondrial DNA of the mother from the nucleus of the ovum (or embryo)[1]and replaces it with healthy mitochondrial DNA donated by a second woman. The ‘corrected’ ovum is then fertilized by male sperm giving the resulting embryo DNA from three persons. Scientists pushing for human trials of the fertilization technique cite success in trials with five monkeys.

Critics raise safety and ethical concerns.

The safety of this technology is suspect. “It breaks the chain of genetic inheritance,” says Dina Fine Maron, Associate Editor of Scientific American. The impact on future generations has not been tested. Laurie Zoloth, a Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University, and Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics & Society, agree in their concern for the effects of ‘mitochondrial manipulation technologies’ on babies born through the process. The risks to the child by this procedure are significant but the risks do not stop with one child but change the genetic make-up of all future generations. “These genetic changes become a permanent part of that family line,” Maron states. Elizabeth Lopatto quotes another expert who voices caution:

"Once you make this change, if a female arises from the process and goes on to have children, that change is passed on, so it’s forever," United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation chief science officer Phil Yeske said. "That’s uncharted territory; we just don’t know what it means."

Genetic modification crosses an ethical line.

In a recent On Point interview with Tom Ashbrook of Boston’s NPR, Darnovsky stated that a ‘bright line’ against genetic modification has been observed around the world for decades. Forty countries have laws against it. If the FDA approves the genetic mitochondrial manipulation being requested, Darnovsky said, “It sets in motion something with no stopping point” and opens the door to “a high tech consumer eugenics rat race.”

Others express concerns that opening the door to genetic manipulation to treat mitochondrial disease will “divorce ethics from science” and lead to “designer babies”. Their concern is what begins for a medical purpose may lead to choosing babies with a particular eye color or level of intelligence. Maron also points out that the children whose lives begin from this process have had no say in the decision making process.

There are other troubling issues raised by the new fertilization technique. The process used by some scientists involves creating embryos for destruction—killing a tiny new life that God has begun.

Why should Christians care?

Scripture clearly teaches that God places a higher value on humans than on the rest of creation, that the meaning and purpose of God for each human life begins before birth, that God forbids us to kill innocent human life, and that we are to protect and care for innocent life.[2]

The biblical theme of continuity of life before and after birth is relevant.

The biblical writers did not use different words to label prenatal and postnatal life. The same Hebrew and Greek terms are often used to refer both to the born and the unborn. For example, Geber is a Hebrew noun usually translated man, male, or husband. In Job 3:3, Job curses the night in which it was said, "a man-child [geber] is conceived." Yeled is a term in Hebrew commonly translated child or boy. Yet Genesis 25:22 refers to yeladim (children) struggling inside the womb of Rebekah. Moses recites a law in which a Yeled (child, boy) comes forth from a woman (born prematurely).

In Greek, brephos is often used of infants and the newly born (Luke 18:15; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 7:19). But in Luke 1:41 and 44, brephos is used of John the Baptist leaping in the womb of Elizabeth. Huios in the Greek means son and is used in Luke 1:36 of John being conceived by Elizabeth: "'And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.'"[3]

Although it might seem convenient if the facts were otherwise, neither Scripture nor biology gives us a basis to treat the zygote and embryo as anything other than the unique human lives they are. By using the same words to describe prenatal and postnatal life, Scripture shows continuity between life before and after birth. The biological process of human development from zygote, to embryo, to fetus, to baby, to child, to mature adult is a continuous biological process. The only beginning point is fertilization, when a new individual is created. There is no basis for drawing any other conclusion.[4]

It is easy to feel compassion for those with mitochondrial disease and the plight of women who desperately want to give birth to children but do not want to pass it on to their children. Loren Grush writing for Fox News quotes Laurie Zoloph who defines the problem with pursuing that goal at any cost:

People really want what they think is 'their' DNA,” Zoloth said. “That’s ethically problematic, because you’re taking a huge risk for this very narrow purpose – which is passing on [your] particular genetic code at a very high cost. It is saying that this genetic passing on is at such importance to me that I’m willing to risk the potential health of my child.”[5]

Dr. Nigel Cameron addressed the similar ethical dilemma of embryonic stem cell research a few years ago. His comments apply to three-person embryo fertilization:

For the question we face is distinctly ethical in character. At the heart of our conception of civilization lies the principle of restraint: that there are things we shall not do, shall never do, even though they may bring us benefit . . .If there are things that we should not do, it is easy for us to refuse to do them when they offer no benefit. When the benefit they offer is modest, the choice is still not hard. The challenge to morals and to public policy lies precisely here, where the benefits seem great. Yet it is here also that our intuitive respect for the early embryo requires us to pay a price.

The Christian understanding of God is He is both Creator of, and Sovereign over, human life. We all know our own propensity toward manipulating circumstances and people to serve our purposes and our depravity of wisdom when we seek to solve problems outside of God’s expressed will and principles. What shocking audacity would make us think we could do a better job of creating life than God? We cannot possibly understand the ramifications of tinkering with genetics because we cannot see into the future or fathom what God is planning to do through a life—even a life of suffering and imperfection.

The Bible’s story of Job is informative. Job suffered more than most of us ever will do in a lifetime and at one point he said, “I loathe my life.” He pleaded with God to “Remember that you have made me like clay.” He challenged God, “Why did you bring me out from the womb?” But, to Job’s credit, he continued in dialogue with God and with his friends. In the end of his story he had come to a clearer understanding of himself and of God. “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I have uttered what I did not understand…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 10 & 42)

The fertilization of human life is a sacred thing. We would be wise to leave the design of a human being in His hands.



[1] Dr. James Grifo, Program Director of New York University’s Fertility Center admitted in an On Point interview that human embryos have been used in experimentation but have not been implanted. PPL stands against any research resulting in the destruction of human embryos. See our position paper on stem cells.

[2]Position Statement on Abortion, Presbyterians Pro-Life, Education and Care, Inc., June 1988, rev. 1993.

[3] Fowler, Paul B., Abortion: Toward an Evangelical Consensus, 1987, Multnomah Press, Portland, Oregon, pp. 144,145.

[4] Position Statement on Stem Cells, Presbyterians Pro-Life, Education and Care, Inc., October 2005

[5] Grush, Loren, “A child with 2 moms, 1 dad: Ethical concerns surrounding 3-parent IVF,” FoxNews.com