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Having One Child To Save Another: The Moral Dilemma of Savior Siblings

Doctors in France on Monday announced the country’s first birth of a “savior sibling”.

A “savior sibling” refers to the creation of a genetically matched human being, in order to be the savior of a sick child in need of a donor. This requires creating human embryos via in vitro vertilization, fertilizing the mother’s egg with the father’s sperm.

Then, using pre-implantation technology, the embryos are tested, and the one deemed genetically compatible is implanted into the mother’s womb in order for the embryo to grow and develop. Once that baby is delivered, the cord blood is often collected because it provides a perfect match for the sick sibling. Later on, bone marrow, blood, or even organs, can also be taken and used for transplantation for the sick sibling.

France’s first “savior sibling” was conceived through in vitro and born to parents of Turkish origin January 26 at the Antoine Beclere Hospital in Clamart, in the suburbs of Paris.  The child’s embryo was genetically selected to ensure he did not carry the gene for beta thalassemia, from which his siblings suffer, but was also a close enough match to provide treatment cells from umbilical cord blood, a rich source of stem cells.

Beta thalassemia produces an abnormal form of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells which carries oxygen around the body. It causes destruction of red blood cells, which in turn leads to anemia.

The world’s first “savior sibling” was Adam Nash, born in the United States in 2000.  Chicago doctors helped the Nash family conceive the baby boy who provided umbilical cord blood stem cells used to treat his sister Molly who was affected by a rare genetic condition called Fanconi’s anaemia.

If not for the exact match from Adam, Molly would have died. The Nashes created 30 embryos and went through four rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to finally produce Adam.  The procedure involved testing IVF embryos to identify those that were disease-free and a tissue match for Molly.  Of course, the ethics surrounding the destruction of the 29 other embryos is concerning.  Adam was chosen, 29 other human lives were not because their DNA was not able to rescue Molly from a deadly diagnosis.

As technology moves at warp speed these moral dilemmas will only increase.   For the first time in history, we are able to intentionally create human life and allow it to fully develop solely because we need that life to save another. Realistically, there could be several embryos which provide the genetic match, but since only one is needed; even embryos which make the cut are thrown away.  But who’s to say why one human life is more valuable than another?  In our desperate need to do whatever it takes to heal our children are we crossing an ethical line?

How do you feel about the concept of savior siblings?  Are they, from the moment of birth denied the full rights to their own bodies?  Even more troubling, what about those other lives created, and then destroyed because they did not perfectly meet the need.  Or, as a parent, would you do anything it took to save your child’s life?

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