Feature

The Miracle of Molly

In the Fall of 2000, Denver’s Lisa and Jack Nash genetically engineered a baby in an effort to save their dying little girl. Pastors and pundits said it was the first step down a stem-cell-paved road to Hell. Five years later, the Nashes give us an exclusive look at Heaven.

August 2005

A Beautiful Day

Each letter in the Hebrew "alefbet" is assigned a numerical value, and the Hebrew word for life, "chai," adds up to 18. Eighteen days after the transplant, Molly rose from her bed, gingerly twirled around the room, and said, "Mommy, do you want to dance?"

Controversy

On Jan. 4, 2001, when Molly Rose Nash returned home to Colorado, the Nashes found themselves in the midst of a media storm. It began even before their genetically screened baby's stem cells dripped into Molly's veins. Six days before the transplant, as Jack and Lisa cradled their new son and stroked Molly's hand, CBS News posed the question: "Genetically improved children—an ethical issue?" The story detailed the measures employed by the Nash family and went on to report that the American Association for the Advancement of Science believed "it is dangerous and irresponsible for scientists to experiment with genetic changes that will affect future generations of humans, even if the goal is to cure disease...."

Jack and Lisa were hounded with requests for interviews. It seemed everyone wanted to photograph Molly with her newborn brother. The Nashes used the hospital's underground tunnels to come and go. News organizations including CNN, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and the British Broadcasting Corporation teased provocative headlines. The headline in the British Medical Journal read "'Designer Baby' Cures Sister." The Washington Post's headline was "Test-Tube Baby Born to Save Ill Sister." The issues were raised: For the first time ever, in vitro fertilization combined with genetic testing had created a perfectly matched donor. Science, it seemed, had just moved a step closer to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where humans are engineered rather than born. Suddenly, the Nashes were the poster family for the divisive debate.

Dr. Wagner, Molly's transplant doctor, hardly sees the Nash case as tipping the scale toward scientific utopia, yet he does consider it to be a monumental medical moment. "The international response was almost unprecedented," he says. "But that was a mixture of what was going on: There's a child who had a life-threatening condition, time was running out, and we created a donor," he says.

The Nashes' healthy embryos were preserved, not destroyed. Yet some of their critics, actually many of their critics, insisted that the Nashes had been cavalier with the embryos, with life itself. A Christian Life Resources article titled "Babies a la Carte: Good Intentions & the Road to Hell," condemned Jack and Lisa for using in vitro fertilization and creating what it believed was an abundance of embryos for the sole purpose of selecting just one: "[Molly's brother] was a means—valuable only insofar as he carried the right genetic material. And if he hadn't, he would have been rejected—like the other 14 discarded embryos," wrote Charles Colson, a Christian leader and former special counsel to President Richard Nixon.

"To argue that 'surplus' embryos may be thrown away in any case," went an article in James Dobson's Focus on the Family magazine, "arrogantly glosses over the fact that embryos are living human beings, created in the image of God, and deserving protection." Father Joseph Howard, director of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission, railed against the Nashes' use of "unethical science," where, as he put it, "The price of treating the sick must not be paid by killing innocent human beings."

Even as The Washington Post cited the benefits of genetic testing (such as wiping lethal genetic disorders from future generations), many media pundits faulted the Nashes for ripping open a Pandora's box: If they were already selecting healthy embryos and screening for tissue type, how far was science from creating designer babies?

The responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of society, says Dr. Schoolcraft, Lisa Nash's fertility specialist. "As long as the community is still responsible enough to use [genetic testing], a superbaby won't happen." These days, PGD can screen for 30 to 40 diseases and is commonly requested by parents terrified of passing along a devastating disease such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, or Tay-Sachs.

In Christianity Today, Ben Mitchell, a senior fellow at Illinois' Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, has expressed his concern over the "almost grotesque precedent" set by the Nashes. "Instead of saying that each person is an end unto themselves, this case says that people can be used as a means to the end.... You are having a child expressly to serve the needs of another child." The BBC and the medical website WebMD were among the news sources that posed the question, "Did they choose to have a healthy baby because they wanted another child, or because they wanted a source to help cure their daughter?"

For the most part, Jack and Lisa ignored the press and concentrated on saving their daughter. "All of our attention was wrapped around Molly," Lisa says. "Everything else was white noise. I wasn't focusing on people tearing me apart. My concern was taking care of Molly and giving her brother some semblance of a normal newborn life."

Lisa, who now is in her late 30s, is of average height and build, with a thin, youthful face and dark, curly hair that requires little maintenance, which is a good thing. Like most moms, Lisa puts her family's concerns ahead of her own. There's not a lot of time for primping. The only visible hint that Lisa has endured such an ordeal is in her eyes: They're dark and intense; they're the eyes of a lioness protecting her cubs.

Jack's eyes have the twinkle of a playful joker. He is the softer yin to Lisa's yang. Also in his early 40s, with graying hair, he's more inclined than his wife to smile. It seems that Jack and Lisa's marriage is a partnership. One minute, he's following her lead, and the next he's charting the course. But when it comes to Molly, it's Lisa who does the talking, with Jack filling in some details and, when the mood becomes too intense, lightening the conversation with dry humor. Perhaps it's Lisa's maternal instinct or the NICU nurse in her, but she's the one who has the photographic memory of Molly's life. She's the one who can recall her daughter's blood count on any given morning.

The Nashes can't understand why people question their motives and self-righteously deconstruct their private lives. Never mind the arrogance of some Christian pundits who, when preaching against the PGD process and the decisions the Nashes have made, discount the fact that the Nashes are Jewish. And according to Jewish law, as Lisa and Jack see it, the faithful are commanded to do whatever is necessary, with the exception of committing murder or adultery, to preserve life. "We wanted a healthy child," Lisa says. "We wanted a child who would not suffer the way Molly suffered. And we made a decision for our family, not for the world to take issue. In my shoes, you would have done the same thing."

Pages