Answering Infertility with Genetic Modification: Evolution or Playing God?

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I am the middle of 5 children. We are all from the same parents who are still married. Since the time I was 5 years old, there has never been a time when there wasn’t a toddler in our house. I’m 30 years old now. I think I’m officially immune to baby fever. The gene to love shopping at malls and having babies somehow skipped me and I’m happy for that. However, the older I get I see it happen. First, one of my girlfriends gets infected and then, it quickly passes to each and every one. I don’t know if it’s through touch or some sort of mental telepathy, but it happens quick and there’s no stopping it. I call it the,  I want a baby and I want it now syndrome. The only known cure is reproduction.

More and more I watch couples around me struggle with infertility. I had one friend go to multiple fertility centers across the US trying to get pregnant with endometriosis. She was finally successful and jokes that her baby, “spent his inheritance getting here.” My sister, happy mother of 2, has had a horrible year with two miscarriages. After multiple tests, they discovered that she has a blood clotting disorder and hopefully she will be able to carry full term next time.

The Problem – Infertility

With the rise of infertility for whatever reason – diet, exercise, GM foods, toxins in our food/water, endocrine disruptors in our daily products – it’s natural that mankind is working on new ways to treat infertility, but how far are you willing to go? Is it okay to genetically modify humans? For some women/couples, not surprisingly, no.

New Science – Genetic Modification of Humans

In terms of genetically modifying, some strange headlines have been produced over the last few years. More and more human genes are in those headlines. Last year, human genes were added to cows in order for cattle to produce human breast milk in China.

But humans? Sound too much like the 1997 movie Gattaca to be true? Think again. This week it was announced that 30 healthy genetically modified babies were produced at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey. The study was published in the journal Human Reproduction.

Can genetic modification be a new treatment for infertile women? In these experiments, the female patients had damaged mitochondria in their eggs. Scientists took the mitochondria from eggs of healthy donors and injected it in the patients. Mitochondria are the power source for cells and works by converting sugar into energy. In eggs, the mitochondria (and quality of the egg) lessen with age along with other factors (genetics, smoking, health problems such as endometriosis). If the egg does not have enough mitochondria or its mitochondria are damaged, then the cells will not be able to produce the energy to divide and form a fetus.

Is this an alternative to using donor eggs? One of the biggest drawback to using a donated egg is that the couple trying to conceive will not have a child of their genetic make-up. However, this new treatment has caused some of the children to have altered maternal germlines. The children have the DNA of three parents – two women and one man. It is important to take note that this is the first case of human germline genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children. Also of note, not all of the children had altered germlines and one of the children with an altered germline was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder – a type of autism.

The Controversy – Ethics

The controversy behind this new infertility treatment is heard around the world. Doctors and specialists in Britain stated in the Daily Mail that it shouldn’t be allowed, nor would it be allowed in the UK. In the Jamaica Observer, they start their report by discussing how comic book super heroes got their powers and then asking if the human race is headed towards a super race of genetically altered superior humans? The idea of a genetically modified human race is not new, of course, but now it seems that we might have the technology to carry it out. The Jamaica Observer also points out that the media has finally caught up to the science and that these experiments actually started in 1997.

And what does the US government have to say about this? In an article from Washington Monthly published in 2002, Shannon Brownlee reports:

Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has argued that genetically manipulated embryos are a “biological product,” and therefore subject to regulation, just like medical devices and drugs. But because of a quirk in federal law, the FDA’s authority in this sphere is far from certain.

I looked on the FDA’s website and could only find guidance on genetically engineering animals. It stated:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued a final guidance for industry on the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) animals under the new animal drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The guidance, titled “The Regulation of Genetically Engineered Animals Containing Heritable rDNA Constructs,” clarifies the FDA’s statutory and regulatory authority, and provides recommendations to producers of GE animals to help them meet their obligations and responsibilities under the law.

“Genetic engineering is a cutting edge technology that holds substantial promise for improving the health and well being of people as well as animals. In this document, the agency has articulated a scientifically robust interpretation of statutory requirements,” said Randall Lutter, Ph.D., deputy commissioner for policy. “This guidance will help the FDA efficiently review applications for products from GE animals to ensure their safety and efficacy.”

The FFDCA defines “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals” as drugs. An rDNA construct that is in a GE animal and is intended to affect the animal’s structure or function meets the definition of an animal drug, whether the animal is intended for food, or used to produce another substance. Developers of these animals must demonstrate that the construct and any new products expressed from the inserted construct are safe for the health of the GE animal and, if they are food animals, for food consumption.

What Do You Think?

Countries all around the world are outlawing genetically modified crops produced by the seed corporation Monsanto. This coming November, California will vote whether or not GM foods have to be labeled. All while Jacques Cohen, of the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey, continues to develop ways to help infertile women conceive which includes genetically modifying humans..

What do you think? Is it worth the potential risks of altering our genetic code to help infertile women carry their “own” children?

Lisbeth Prifogle is a freelance writer, Marine officer, and globetrotter currently in San Diego, CA. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and a BA from DePauw University. Lisbeth spent six months in Iraq and is working on a memoir about her experiences. She keeps a blog titled The Next Bold Move and her work can be found in the 11th issue of Poem Memoir Story, The Splinter Generation, and In the Know Travel. Lisbeth has had problems balancing hormones since she was a teenager and is constantly researching and exploring natural remedies including diet, exercise, and alternative medicines.


  1. i just want to give thanks to my spiritual mother who help me and is been a year now when you help me conceive my son micheal and save my marriage, i was married for without conceiving until the issue resolved to problem in my marriage which about to be broken until iya basira help with her spiritual powers, i was really worried and bothered because i don’t want to loose my husband to another woman. i have went to hospital, the doctor told me that i can’t get pregnant again due to my last abortion. i thought have lost my husband already and i have lost hope and faith until one day that a very good friend of mine introduce me to native iya basira of the i contacted her. she did spiritual prayers and bless me with the fruit of the womb a try which make me to be happy today. now i have giving birth to healthy boy. and my husband now love me more than before. so that’s while i am here to share the good work of native woman to help my family, i pray that my God will reward you for all that you have done for me for bringing smile to my face once is her contact for anybody who need her help also

  2. There was a whole book written about just this subject by Allen Buchanan called “Better than Human”. In it the author argues that 1) intelligent design isn’t very intelligent, i.e. natural selection doesn’t always give us desired results; 2) the story of human progress is the story of science and enhancement, language being one example that has actually modified our culture and behavior significantly; 3) intentional genetic modification has significant advantages over unintentional genetic modification, e.g. pesticide treated celery can survive with lower levels of natural toxins; 4) to say something is an adaptation or enhancement or “unnatural” just stays something about how it came about, nothing about its present value; 5) if we fail to utilize bio-medical enhancements, it could be said we are morally at fault for acquieescing to our limitations; 6) new technologies can help our species avert great harm, shortages; 7) the questions we should be asking is not are we playing God, but whether new technologies carry acceptable risks; and 8) we are mistaken to believe that if we don’t enhance changes to technology won’t occur. They will only through the back door.

    On a personal note, if my son had been born 20 years earlier than he was he would have died b/c the technology that saved his life didn’t exist 20 years earlier. Another child that I lost prior to giving birth had a genetic mutation that could today be corrected with epi-genetics and/or in utero surgery. Would I deny myself and my children the benefits of this technology just to avoid “playing God”?

    • It’s interesting – is it just the natural progression of evolution? I suppose a lot of the ethical questions come down to personal beliefs – creation or evolution (and even more so whether or not you believe in a god/creator or are we just out here on our own trying to adapt and survive?) It’ll be interesting to see what the long term effects are (well, the first round of these experiments that were successful were in 1997, coincidently the same year Gattaca was on the big screen, so we can see some of them now). I know a lot of reports about GM foods show that it decreases fertility in the animals that consume them (and possibly humans as well) – will this make the children with these extra genes infertile?

      The other more ethical idea is the age old – good vs evil. I think science/technology has accomplished so much (for the good), but if we look throughout history and especially the more recent/ongoing accounts of genocide and eugenics within our world (something that separates us from the animal kingdom) it is frightening how much power genetic modification could wield in the wrong hands. I suppose the same argument could be made for nuclear bombs/power (maybe this is a bad example considering how volatile nuclear powerplants are). On one hand we can make renewable energy and on the other hand we can destroy the planet.

      The thing that really puzzles me is why it’s all the sudden in the headlines? I originally saw it on Drudge Report and this morning saw an email from Natural News with the headline. All over all the other major news corps and it actually started in ’97? Have no idea what in particular caught people’s attention this time around.

      As far as the great benefits of technology – my nephew had to have a very cutting edge brain surgery for epilepsy a few years ago so I’m definitely with you on how good it can be and that we shouldn’t fear corruption to stop progression. Personally, I just worry that this will create more classes/races/divisions for mankind to kill over or, much like Gattaca, discriminate against … of course I’ve never tried to have a baby so who knows what my fertility will be or what I’ll go through to fulfill that instinctual drive (although I think my family name has enough successors, lol). I was trying to stay objective in this article, but sometimes that’s hard … I think I’m against this even though I consider myself to be atheist (more days than not anyways). You bring up some good points, thanks.

  3. I think that there are so many potential risks that are currently unknown that it’s definitely a gamble. It’s hard to determine what the health implications may be for many years. Of course, if you have the I-want-a-baby-and-I-want-it-now syndrome, you may be willing to take that risk.

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