The last weeks have been tumultuous for everyone concerned with the well-being of the so-called traditional, natural family – or its deconstruction. In Mexico, thousands of protesters marched against adoption rights for gay couples while as many took part in counter-demonstrations. Pope Francis claimed there was a “global war” on the marriage between man and woman and their families – with regard to the actual global wars happening right now a deliciously cynical statement. Even more spectacular was the birth of a boy here in Mexico who was conceived by three parents; not through a kinky ménage a trois but through a risky and highly controversial science innovation involving the extraction of mitochondria. While the nuclear family and its modifications have always been subject to religious discussions, the ethical peculiarities now add political layer of competing health care systems. Mexico plays a crucial role in this development – torn between Catholic dogma vehemently opposing in-vitro fertilization and liberal reproduction laws.
The boy, born to Muslim parents living in the United States, is actually six months old already. However, his family wanted to make sure he is really healthy – not a surprise when one considers that 4 of the 5 embryos created by the doctors died. The reason why the couple even decided to undergo the procedure is the fatal Leigh Syndrome the mother has in her genes. While she is healthy, she has had various miscarriages and lost two children to the disease. The illness is transmitted through the mitochondriae which are exclusively given to the child by the mother. This is why mitochondriae were taken from another, healthy woman and injected into the mother’s egg which was then fertilized by the father’s sperm – making the boy the first child carrying genes from three parents.
When New York based doctors were in charge of the procedure and the family is living in the United States: why was the child then born in Mexico, one might ask. Because it is legal, other than in any other country. “There are no rules here”, said leading medic Dr. John Zhang – surprising for Mexico, the world’s second largest catholic population. Critics fear an increase in “reproductive tourism” which could lead to parents underestimating risks in a country with lower hygiene and health care standards and with countries neglecting ethical implications even more. On the other side, medical scholar Marcia C. Inhorn published an academic article in which she argued “reproductive tourism” should actually be called “reproductive exile” – emphasizing that leaving the country is the only chance for infertile parents to fulfill their dreams of an own family. While Israel ranks first in fertility clinics per capita ratio in the world, Mexico has become increasingly important in the fields of egg donation and assisted reproductive technology (ART).
As mentioned earlier, the Catholic church rejects any kind of medical aid for conception. Ironically, religious concerns are the precise reason why the parents decided in favour of the treatment. The alternative, a procedure in the United Kingdom, would have required two fertilized eggs with one of them being abandoned immediately – non-compatible with the family’s Muslim beliefs. While every major monotheistic religion objects IVF and the likes, the lines are blurry and the interpretation of those beliefs differs from person to person.
The “three-parents-baby” is certainly a catchy ascription and a scientific revolution. Culturally, it does not really challenge the status quo: the child is brought up by a mother and a father who risked a lot to conceive a child they desperately wanted – not exactly contradicting Christian values here. Instead, this case helps to shake the foundations of what is considered natural. The question should not be: What is normal? but: What is healthy for mother and child? If questions of humanity and morality are brought up with such regularity, especially when it comes to “playing god”, as some title it, the humanity towards the two persons most closely involved should precede any dogma. Certainly, ethical aspects have to be considered. But talking about “naturality” in the context of technicised, optimised births in the 21st century for the sake of “naturality” is a discriminatory farce. Luckily – in spite of the great catholic influence – Mexico is a secular country. And although every new medical method should be checked with regard to ethical and legal implications, it should always, always remain independent from religious influences.
Photo Credits: Oocyte by ZEISS Microscopy on Flickr