Breaking the Bonds of Biological Parenthood

Defense of Marriage Must Be Merged With Defense of Parenthood

Washington, D.C., (Zenit.org) Denise Hunnell, MD | 3507 hits

The push to redefine marriage to include relationships between same-sex couples is a movement to abolish the sociological connection between children and their biological parents. It is a movement to destroy the nuclear family. Lesbian journalist and homosexual activist Masha Gessen admitted as much in an Australian radio interview:

“I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally… I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three… And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”

What Ms. Gessen is seeking through the courts and legislatures, the slippery slope of assisted reproductive technology is already constructing in the laboratory. Ten years ago Israeli scientists reported that they had cultivated follicles from the ovaries of aborted female babies. Their hope was that these follicles would be a ready source for ova to use for in vitro fertilization. As lead researcher, Dr. Tal Biron-Shental, admitted, “I'm fully aware of the controversy about this -- but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable. There is a shortage of donated oocytes (eggs) for IVF -- oocytes from aborted fetuses might provide a new source for these.” 

Currently women can receive tens of thousands of dollars as egg donors if they permit their ovaries to be hyperstimulated with exogenous hormones and have the resulting ova harvested for in vitro fertilization procedures. A utilitarian viewpoint sees no problem with making use of the remains of aborted female children as an alternative to satisfy the demand for eggs driven by the burgeoning infertility industry. Yet, contemplate the results of such a procedure: The children produced with these eggs would be the offspring of a woman who was never born.

In 2004 the term “designer baby” was introduced into the Oxford English dictionary and defined as, “a baby whose genetic makeup has been selected in order to eradicate a particular defect, or to ensure that a particular gene is present.”  The child’s genetic makeup is modified and thereby the biological link to his or her parents is modified. While this term was coined in 2004, the first documented case of a genetically modified human embryo was not reported until 2007. Researchers from Cornell University used an embryo with a fatal chromosomal defect and inserted a gene that caused the cells to fluoresce. As the embryonic cells divided, the glowing green protein could be traced from cell to cell, indicating that it had been incorporated into the embryonic DNA. This genetically modified embryo was destroyed, but this work raises the specter of a future eugenics program based on chromosomal enhancements with genes for increased intelligence, musical talent, or athletic ability. 

A more recent and less speculative development that blurs the biological connection between parent and child is the creation of embryos with the DNA of three people. In October 2012, researchers at Oregon Health & Sciences University reported they had successfully grown embryos with the nuclear DNA of one man and one woman and the mitochondrial DNA of a second woman. These human beings created in a laboratory literally have one biological father and two biological mothers. The embryos created by the Oregon researchers were destroyed rather than implanted. Right now, the focus of this technology is developing a feasible solution for rare diseases caused by defects in the mitochondrial DNA. However, it is not unreasonable to think that in the future, this technology will allow parents to pick and choose among possible genes to create their ideal collection of genetic features. Children could be manufactured with a designer genome made to order. 

Great Britain addressed this issue in 2008 when their own scientists, using a method different than that used by the Oregon team, also produced an embryo using the DNA of three people. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 (HFE) does not permit assisted reproductive technology procedures to implant and bring to birth embryos with genetic modifications. The British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA) undertook a review of the procedure to assess its ethical implications. The report concluded that more study was needed to determine the physical risks of this genetic modification technique. If it was deemed safe, the HEFA committee concluded that this approach to mitochondrial disease therapy had great potential. However, the committee also strongly cautioned that there were ethical quandaries generated by such therapy. They specifically questioned the impact it would have on the welfare of the child in terms of his personal identity, his social identity, and his reproductive autonomy. Unlike somatic cell gene therapies, these embryological genetic modifications commit the resulting child to passing on the modified trait to his offspring. The HEFA committee was also concerned that the option to have a corrective genetic enhancement would evolve into a duty to do so. Those who remain afflicted with a potentially correctable genetic disease would be vulnerable to discrimination. 

The wisdom expressed by this committee in identifying ethical concerns is impressive and actually echoes the concerns about human genetic modifications expressed in the Vatican document, Dignitas Personae, which was also promulgated in 2008:

Apart from technical difficulties and the real and potential risks involved, such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society; such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human. This would be in contrast with the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings which is expressed in the principle of justice, the violation of which, in the long run, would harm peaceful coexistence among individuals.(27)

Contrast this to the March 2013 analysis by HEFA, a mere five years later. With more data available on the physical safety of genetically modified embryos, a HEFA panel argued that there is a “clear and compelling” case for research and eventual clinical use of donor mitochondrial DNA to push forward. Concerns about possible ethical conundrums or adverse cultural consequences were summarily ignored.

It is interesting that a restructuring of both the societal and biological relationships between parent and child are proceeding in tandem. As the sociological bonds between parent and child are perverted through a redefinition of marriage, it seems the resistance to breaking the biological bonds wanes as well. Replacing the marital act with various assisted reproductive technologies dehumanizes children and treats them as commodities to be manufactured and marketed for the pleasure of adults. Genetic manipulations that undermine the humanity and dignity of children turn the noble generosity of parenting into a materialistic self-serving exercise. 

When the marital act is no longer required for the conception of children, marriage itself loses its purpose and is no longer the cornerstone for society. Therefore, the defense of marriage as a unique union between one man and one woman must be merged with the defense of parenthood as the vocation of one mother and one father properly expressed within the marital union. 

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Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of Human Life International, an international pro-life organization. She writes for HLI's Truth and Charity Forum.