I have spent my laboratory working life in stem cell research. I am interested in ageing and stem cells seem a good place to start.
I have spent a lot of time around the regenerative medicine network and around people involved in Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) and In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).
I have written papers in this field and in the ethics of this field. So I am not saying any of this without having thought about it.
In the UK we have been lucky to have the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority which regulates what is allowed. Because something is possible does not mean it should be done. It is possible for you to murder, but you should not do that.
We have medical interventions that can save our lives, which is to the good, but we also have medical interventions creating lives that could not exist otherwise, and that is where a lot of contention comes in. I know that there are many opinions and feelings on this and I am not convinced who knows best.
We hear about people that cannot have babies, usually from women that cannot have babies, are infertile for some reason. They feel their lives are blighted, Now for me, I think that is a psychological problem as well as a medical one. I think they have focussed on the one thing they can’t do to the detriment of anything else. There are people with an illness that become that illness, they lose all sense of themselves, their identity becomes their illness. The Disability Lobbies have been stalwarts at altering that image. People with a disability are not the disability; that is merely a part of them and they are also able; able to be themselves. They are more than their disability. The same with disease or illness.
We also hear about people wanting babies that cannot have them for other reasons, such as being male.
And now we have people that do not accept this and so want to have babies somehow. Medical interventions and surrogacy have implemented this supply to those that demand it.
Surrogacy is basically renting a womb. There may not be a large payment, but the surrogate mother provides the uterus for the growth of the embryo. The embryo may be from the surrogate’s egg mixed with donor sperm from a man that wants a biological baby or it may be a donated egg from a woman that wants a biological baby, but cannot manage a pregnancy.
The problem of course is who really are the baby’s biological parents? I ask this as I imagine that when the child grows up it will want to know. Never mind the parents wishes. I want to know how the child feels.
We are more than our genetic material, but it plays a large part. Most of our genetic material, DNA, is held in the nucleus of the cell and codes for the genes that make the proteins that make us.
The mitochondria are little organs, organelles, inside each cell in our body. They are responsible for energy conversion. Glucose comes from our food and oxygen from the air that enters our lungs. Both glucose and oxygen cross into our blood and our blood transports the glucose and oxygen to every cell in our body. There insulin helps glucose to be taken into the cell (hence the problem for those with insulin deficits, diabetes) and both glucose and oxygen enter the cell. The glucose and oxygen combine in a similar way that petrol and oxygen combine in a car, burning up to release the energy contained in the glucose molecule, in the atomic bonds. However, in us it is done at a much lower temperature than in a car, with the help of enzymes which are protein molecules and proteins are coded for by DNA.
The glucose and oxygen combine to form ATP (the molecule on my front page) which is used as an energy store to fuel all the reactions of the body. Most of this is done inside mitochondria, so mitochondria are vital for our lives.
Mitochondria are unusual organelles. They contain their own genetic material, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Like any DNA it can have mutations and these get passed on in the maternal line as the mother makes eggs which have mitochondria in, her mitochondria. Each parent also donates nuclear genetic material to the embryo, but only the mother donates mtDNA. We can trace people back to ‘Eve’ by their maternal mitochondria. Many of us are interested in where we come from.
Mitochondria only contain about 37 genes while nuclear DNA (nDNA) contains about 30,000 genes. But the mitochondrial genes are vital and any mutations can lead to serious and very deadly diseases.
If a woman is carrying mutated mitochondrial genes she will pass them on to her offspring regardless of whether her nuclear genes and the father’s nuclear genes are fine.
To circumvent this, women with mitochondrial diseases need three biological donors:
- one giving an egg with healthy mitochondria ( a donor female) but with the nucleus removed so there is no nuclear genetic material,
- one giving nuclear genetic material (the ‘mother’ with the faulty mitochondria) but not donating the egg and
- one giving sperm (the male donor) containing nuclear genetic material. Three partners/donors/parents.
The egg may then be brought through pregnancy by the ‘mother’ if it is only her mitochondrial genetic material that is at fault. In other-words, her nucleus with nuclear genes can be put into the egg with no nucleus but healthy mitochondria and fertilised by sperm. The problem is, you have just cloned a baby.
Again, how do the children feel when they grow up?
I imagine in the first case that the child of a surrogate would want to know the egg donor or the womb donor. In some cultures and religions it is the womb donor who is the mother, not the egg donor. I know of people who have used this method to have children because they wanted children. I am not sure how their children will react to finding out that their mother was rent-a-womb and that their parents have no further interest in her once she has done her bit.
For the mitochondrial child, there may only have been an egg with mitochondrial DNA genetic material donated and the pregnancy might have been in the mother. Not just the social mother, but the biological one.
I think we need to stop thinking about parents rights as there are no real inalienable rights to have children. Who do you blame if you can’t have children? Who do you sue; yourself? We need to start thinking about how we use women as just another commodity in our individual choices, in our buying power, in the way we treat each other and the planet as one big shop. We need to start thinking about how the children will feel and what they will want when they grow up. And most of us want to know where we came from, who our biological parents are, what their culture and customs are and how come they sold/gave us to another.