Health Team

Pursuit of healthy child created moral dilemma for couple

Posted April 7, 2010
Updated April 8, 2010

— A few years ago, Joanne and Blaine Reese wondered if they could ever have healthy children.

Their first child, Joseph, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy six weeks after he was born in 2006. The genetic disorder causes progressive degeneration and weakness of muscles, including those used in breathing and eating, and is fatal.

Joseph died when he was 5 months old.

The Reeses worried that, if they had another child, it would have a one-in-four chance of carrying the spinal muscular atrophy gene.

The couple went to Carolina Conceptions, a fertility clinic in Raleigh, for in vitro fertilization and a procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD.

PGD biopsies a 3-day-old embryo to determine if it carries genetic markers for spinal muscular atrophy or other inherited illnesses, Dr. Grace Couchman said.

"A very tiny, little laser hole is made in the embryo. A single cell is taken out, and those single cells are sent for genetic analysis," Couchman said. "We will be able to find out which of the embryos are actually healthy – the embryos that do not carry the affected genetic disorder."

The Reeses struggled with the decision to use the genetic test.

"How far is too far?" Blaine Reese said, noting that he and his wife consulted their pastor.

"He said, 'You're not asking for a 6-foot-3 boy with blue eyes and blond hair who's going to run the 40 (meters) in four seconds. You're asking for a healthy child,'" he said.

Still, Dr. Jacques Mistrot, a retired cardiac surgeon who teaches bio-ethics through the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, said the procedure raises questions about the embryos that are found to have a genetic disorder.

"I pray that the day will come with this technology that we'll be able to eliminate the defective gene and not the defective child," Mistrot said. "To get that normal child ... is a wonderful end, but the means have to be examined."

More than 500,000 human embryos are in frozen storage in the U.S. Most are reserved for possible use in future pregnancies, and President Barack Obama last year lifted restrictions on government funding for stem cell research using donated embryos.

Parents decide the fate of all embryos, including those found to have genetic defects.

Using PGD, the Reeses have gotten two healthy children, 2-year-old Haley and 3½-month-old Ross.

"We still have four embryos that we have frozen," Joanne Reese said. "We have not ruled out having more children, but right now, we're pretty happy having two healthy children."


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  • lovemykids11 Apr 9, 2010

    Nikka-why would you say that it is selfish for this couple to have more CHILDREN?

  • mep Apr 8, 2010

    peppercorns... I'm shocked by your selfish and serious lack of compassion for life. In your view, if a human does not meet YOUR standards of a life worth living, if a person is somehow suffering, if a person does not produce something tangible for society, and that person in some way causes the parents grief, your solution is that they should be killed. Newsflash, life is NOT about the avoidance of pain. Love transcends suffering, and all life is valuable. Thankfully I'm pretty sure most humans do not share your beliefs. Next time you are at Walmart, pick yourself up a soul.

  • peppercorns Apr 8, 2010

    If the baby would be have life of suffering, pain and dependence on other people - for assistance, money and total care, and a very short life span...then why bother? So the parents can say how much they sacrificed and be martyrs? What is the benefit to the child? to society?
    There is no reward for taking care of something that was never supposed to be. If there is hope, then go forward with having the child, but with no hope or future, NO! If just becomes a selfish act so you can tell all your friends how wonderful you are for taking care of a child that lived only afew month. YOU let that poor infant suffer for six month???!!! and you say it was worth it! FOR WHO?????????
    MEP you said your friends cherished everyday they had with the child...and that's nice, but did it really help the child in any way or just get them sympathy?

  • mep Apr 8, 2010

    babbleon... and there is where we disagree. An embryo is a created human being. The embryo has both parental aspects, the egg and sperm combined. Choosing to create it, then not implanting it equates abortion to me. Hopefully you read my previous posts regarding my cousin. To "spare" her mother the pain, would have denied her mother the love, joy, and yes struggles for the past 47 years. To truly "spare" a parent the pain from loss, you must first deny them what they want, then they can never lose it. But I do understand your point. My daughter could die any day from her disorder... and yet I would not trade or spare myself of anything in exchange for whatever time I get with her in this life.

  • babbleon Apr 8, 2010

    @mep: I am glad your cousin has a good life, with lots of good care. But if you had to choose between two embryos, and you knew one was much more likely to live a short, painful life than the other, would you really choose to implant the embryo that's 99% sure to die within a year of being born? Wouldn't that then be killing the other embryo?

    Abortion is NOT an issue in this case. It's a question of which embryo to implant. You can't implant them all. I think survivability is an ethical basis for making the decision.

    IVF Drs use that anyway - they prioritize embryos by how vigorously their cells are dividing. Post-birth survivability is an ethical criteria as well.

  • babbleon Apr 8, 2010

    @mep: If I were going to die at less than a year old, then yeah, I would have preferred to spare my parents the pain of my death. I love my parents, and would like to spare them a lot of things.

  • babbleon Apr 8, 2010

    @mep - I have so many disorders I'm fortunate to be alive - 500 years ago, my allergies or eyesight alone would have made living a challenge. That said, there's a difference between 10 or 30 years, and maybe more (like, say, cystic fibrosis) with an uncertain end and a few months. And there's a difference between choosing which embryos to implant and aborting.

  • babbleon Apr 8, 2010

    @janessab - I feel for your friends. I can not imagine their pain, but I'm crying for them anyway.

  • babbleon Apr 8, 2010

    @sephus - someone will have to give the progesterone shots after implantation. It's a BIG needle, but it was easier for me to get those than it was to nerve myself up to giving them.

  • mep Apr 8, 2010

    lissarra.... but notice, in this scenario you have that choice. A baby does not. And you can see in my second post, just because a baby is born with a life threatening condition, does not make it a guaranteed death sentence. My cousin is 47 years old.... 47 years of having life the doctors said she would never have. A life filled with giving and receiving love. EVERY life comes with risks. No one knows when we will die, unless that decision is made by abortion.