Three Parents. A Lot of Questions.

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A fertility doctor looking at an embryo through a microscope.

Earlier this week, doctors in New York reported they helped a woman have a child with genetic material from three people, a medical first. The new technique allowed the baby boy to avoid a fatal genetic condition called Leigh Syndrome. To bypass the disorder, doctors created a hybrid egg, inserting the nucleus from the mother into a donor egg before fertilizing it.

But this technique is actually banned here in the United States. Dr. John Zhang of New Hope Fertility Center on the Upper West Side had to do the procedure at his clinic in Mexico. And because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate this work, there are few rules for what happens now: is the baby tracked for medical complications? Will the baby ever find out who his “third parent” is?

Doctors who do this work are used to these concerns. But they see what they do as a critical piece of how Americans are redefining how we think about what dictates a family – not genetics at all, but  something else entirely.

Dr. James Grifo, who mentored Zhang and leads the NYU Fertility Center, says when he first began practicing he saw mostly infertile straight couples, but very quickly that began to change. First he saw single women. Then lesbian couples. Then gay men. “It’s easy to be afraid of these things, but loved, wanted babies are the secret sauce,” he said. “Who gets to decide how you build your family, who gets to decide how you want to be on this earth, I think it really should lie with the individual.”

Zhang has seen those changes, too. “ The patient population changed, because our society changed, our technology changed,” he said. “You need to new come up with some new technology.”