Three persons, three genetic contributors, three parents: Mitochondrial donation, genetic parenting and the immutable grammar of the 'three x x'

Health (London). 2018 May;22(3):240-258. doi: 10.1177/1363459316689380. Epub 2017 Jan 27.


In 2015, two novel in vitro fertilisation techniques intended to prevent the inheritance of mitochondrial disease were legalised in the United Kingdom, following an intense period of inquiry including scientific reviews, public consultations, government guidance and debates within the Houses of Parliament. The techniques were controversial because (1) they introduced a third genetic contributor into the reproductive process and (2) they are germline, meaning this genetic change could then be passed down to subsequent generations. Drawing on the social worlds framework with a focus on implicated actors and discursive strategies, this article explores key features of the UK mitochondrial debates as they played out in real time through policy documents and public debate. First, it situates the technology within a repertoire of metaphors, emotional terminology and their politics. It then explores the immutable grammar of 'three x x' that formed a key component of the political debate, by focusing on how institutional reviews discursively negotiated uncertainty around genetic parentage and how beneficiaries were implicated and rendered distant. Following the 2016 announcement of the first baby born through mitochondrial donation (in Mexico) and several pregnancies (in the Ukraine), we close with a discussion about the specific nature of UK regulation within a global economy. Overall, this article contributes to a much needed sociological discussion about mitochondrial donation, emerging reproductive technologies and the cultural significance of genetic material and genetic relatedness.

Keywords: bioethics; chronic illness and disability; experiencing illness and narratives; genetics; health policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics
  • Humans
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / genetics
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy / ethics
  • Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy / methods
  • Parents*
  • Reproductive Techniques, Assisted*
  • Sociology
  • United Kingdom