If there's room for a cultural issue in the upcoming Republican primary cycle, this might be it.
The news from England is that Parliament has approved high-tech treatments that would replace a tiny portion of a mother's DNA with genetic material from another woman (the "third parent"). The procedure would avoid the birth of children with mitochondrial diseases that can be disabling and even fatal. Though the resulting baby would still have more than 99 percent of her or his mom's DNA, the donated genes would be passed down to all her descendants.
For decades bioethicists have supposed that engineering DNA in a single individual's body cells would be acceptable, while modifying the human "germline" using genetic engineering would be a societal third rail. The British decision challenges that assumption. Is this move the backdoor to what are often called designer babies? Are we on the verge of Aldous Huxley's brave new world?
It's not clear that the longstanding ethical barrier was directed at preventing a baby from being born with a serious disease. After all, genetic screening that lessens the presence of traits that involve diseases like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs also affects the human gene pool. But the fact that the mother's inheritance line will be changed and the targeted nature of these technologies that involve high-end microscopes, lasers and even joysticks does seem different.
It's been almost exactly a year since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration held a meeting on the issue. The FDA has jurisdiction because mitochondrial DNA replacement is a medical procedure. So far the agency hasn't announced its position on, say, clinical trials in this country, though previous experiments have given strong evidence that the procedure is safe.
Just as embryonic stem cell research was the sentinel cultural issue for the last several presidential campaigns, so the three-parent embryo could well be adopted by one of the more socially conservative candidates. As I explained in my book, The Body Politic, these values issues aren't only of concern to conservatives, but they tend to be matters of greater symbolic importance to activist voters in the GOP than among Democrats.
Among candidates who might take the issue for their own, the most obvious possibilities are Rick Santorum, who, with his wife, has just published a moving account of life with their disabled daughter Bella, and Ben Carson, who was a member of President George W. Bush's bioethics council. Bobby Jindal has banned certain human-animal hybrid experiments in Louisiana and might well find the three-parent embryo interesting as well. It could also put pressure on those who are less focused on cultural issues, like Jeb Bush, the way that John McCain found himself squeezed about embryonic stem cell research in 2008.
Considering how hot that topic once was, hardly anyone outside science has noticed that human stem cells were created from a cloned embryo in 2013 by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at the Oregon Health and Science University. Perhaps attention wasn't paid because the embryo wasn't allowed to become a fetus, or maybe it's just that the paper was published in between presidential election cycles. Now the talented Mitalipov has moved on to mitochondrial DNA replacement.
If that doesn't get Republican conservatives to notice the issue there's also this: He's a Russian.