Defence of marriage must be linked to defence of parenthood

Defence of marriage must be linked to defence of parenthood

Denise Hunnell

The push to redefine marriage to include 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 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."

Slippery slope

What Ms Gessen is seeking through 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. They hoped that these follicles would be a ready source for ova to use for IVF. As 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 [eggs] for IVF – aborted foetuses might provide a new source for these."

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 IVF 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 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 spectre of a future eugenics program based on chromosomal enhancements with genes for increased intelligence, musical talent, or athletic ability.

A more recent development that blurs the biological connection between parent and child is the creation of embryos with the DNA of three people. In 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 lab 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.

Britain addressed this issue in 2008 when scientists, using a method different from that used by the Oregon team, also produced an embryo using the DNA of three people. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 does not permit assisted reproductive technology procedures to implant and bring to birth embryos with genetic modifications.

Ethical quandaries

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, HEFA 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 personal identity, social identity, and reproductive autonomy. Unlike somatic cell gene therapies, these embryological genetic modifications commit the resulting child to passing on the modified trait to offspring. HEFA 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 in identifying ethical concerns is impressive and echoes the concerns about human genetic modifications expressed in the Vatican document Dignitas Personae:

"Apart from technical difficulties and the ... 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 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."

Contrast this with a 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 a "clear and compelling" case for research and clinical use of donor mitochondrial DNA. 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 sociological bonds between parent and child are perverted through a redefinition of marriage, resistance to breaking biological bonds wanes as well. Replacing the marital act with various assisted reproductive technologies dehumanises children and treats them as commodities. 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 conception, marriage itself loses its purpose and is no longer the cornerstone of society. Therefore, the defence of marriage as a unique union between one man and one woman must be merged with the defence of parenthood as the vocation of one mother and one father properly expressed within the marital union.

Denise Hunnell MD is a fellow of Human Life International.

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