Three’s a Crowd: Identifying the Shifting Parental Rights in Three-Parent Babies

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

Once again, science is spurring the law to adapt in ways it never could have predicted. A baby boy was recently born with genetic material of three different people. Aside from being born slightly premature, the now three-month-old child is very healthy. Even though three-parent techniques have been used before, this child marked the first healthy birth.

Given the obvious religious, safety, and ethical disputes behind such a medical procedure it may seem unclear as to why anyone would want to go through with it. The answer, however, avoids the arguments that the procedure is simply done to “play God” or for polyamorous relationships. The mother underwent the treatment to ensure both the happiness of parents and the health the child.

In this instance, the mother carried genetic defects identified to cause Leigh syndrome. This disorder which affects the brain resulted in the mother having had four pregnancy losses in addition to the death of two previous children at the ages of 8 months and 6 years. Leigh syndrome is caused by defects in a cells mitochondria, and the three-parent treatment was able to bypass the damaged mitochondrial DNA.

The process involves implanting the mother’s DNA into an egg from a donor. The egg has the donor’s main genetic DNA removed prior. The egg is then fertilized with sperm from the father. This process allows the DNA from the mother to pass down virtually unchanged since “mitochondrial DNA makes up less than 1% of the total cellular DNA.” However, small amounts of the donor’s mitochondrial DNA are still left throughout the child’s body.

The treatment was done in Mexico involving a team of fertility specialists from the United States and Great Britain. The procedure took place in Mexico since the treatment used has not yet been approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration, but this may not be the case for long due, in part, to recent successes. Another indicator of this possible change is that the treatment has already been approved in Britain.

Given this rapidly changing landscape, the law, in particular regarding parental rights, needs to somehow catch up quickly on an incredibly complex topic. As the donor parent will only be contributing 37 genes out of the total 22,000, it is likely that a donor’s right will be the most contested. Given the precedent already set forth, courts may adopt one of several strategies if and when three-parent babies are no longer barred in the United States.

  1. The donor parent has no legal claims: This would be similar to the mostly commonly accepted view concerning to sperm donors. In most states, if a sperm is donated through a licensed medical professional then the donor loses all legal claims to the child unless the parents are married. It seems logical that the treatment of an egg donor, in a three-parent situation, would be similar given what the term “donor” implies. Great Britain, which has already approved the three-parent treatment, has already adopted a stance similar to this. However, states are in contention regarding of parental rights and even custody of traditional style egg donors. Given the distribution of DNA it may be easier for a court to rule against the egg donor, but this is still very unclear.
  1. The donor parent has an equal claim to the child: California has already passed a version of a three-parent law, but this was mainly for same-sex couples who wish to have the donor on the birth certificate as well. However, the process leaves the door open for unintended parents, such as the donors, to assert claims over a child. In such a case, a court may find that, despite the objections of two parents, the donor has a right to be considered as a parent. Instances of this have already come up in traditional sperm and egg donation. Such conflicts could create a great degree of instability for the life of the child.
  1. The parties agree through a contract prior to the treatment as to what claims exist: The last apparent possibility is that parties may be able to contractually agree what their family is to look like. This would likely create the most amiable way to go about the process, but it is time-consuming and still may run into problems with the existing laws of certain states.

Clearly, there is no solid answer regarding three-parent babies even though three-parent birth certificates are already becoming more common in the United States. It seems like it is only a matter of time before three-parent babies are introduced into the culture as well. This leaves the question as to whether the law will be ready in time so as to hopefully create a circumstance that, whatever the family may look like, is best for the child.

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