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DNA Deconstructed in New Domestic Thriller

By K. L. Romo


That’s what the press called her—the girl with DNA from two mothers instead of one. Abby was a miracle, her DNA stitched together, genetically modified to prevent transmission of a fatal disease. But at what price?

In Kira Peikoff’s new thriller, MOTHER KNOWS BEST, it’s been three years since Claire Abrams’s son passed away, and she desperately wants to have another child. But her son died from the defective DNA he’d inherited from her.

My defective genes. Too late, I learned that the crucial energy producing parts of my DNA carry a code for faulty wiring. My own invisible flaw became my immutable legacy, magnified and unfixable in every one of his cells.”

She will not let that happen again.

Even though Claire’s husband, Ethan, part of the President’s Bioethics Committee, would never consider altering the DNA of an embryo, Claire has plans to proceed without his knowledge. She’s learned that a brilliant fertility specialist has engineered a way to produce a healthy egg using the DNA of two different women. For Claire, the ethical considerations of the procedure aren’t as important as delivering a healthy baby. She must convince the specialist to use her as a human test subject, keeping the truth from Ethan.

“The implications tapped a vein of hope I thought had cauterized long ago: the birth of my own child (mostly), conceived with a little help from the latest technology; and the rebirth of my marriage, defined for too long by helplessness and disease.”

Peikoff with her son.

Dr. Rob Nash and his assistant, Jillian Hendricks, have developed a procedure to implant healthy genes from one egg into the shell of another. Claire Abrams is desperate to have a healthy baby; she’ll be the perfect human subject. They make no contract for the procedure—producing a genetically modified child is illegal. It’s a secret between the three of them.

But when the truth leaks, someone must take the blame.

Claire runs when federal agents arrest Rob and Jillian, but she’s not sure where to go. The whole country is searching for the FrankenMom carrying a petri-dish baby created during an alleged love triangle. Rob Nash must find her before anyone else does.

Jillian faces criminal charges alone. She accepts her prison sentence but will not accept Rob’s defection. She vows to track down the woman who stole her perfect man and the baby they created. Then she and Rob will get the recognition they deserve—they are the superstar scientists who created a genetically altered baby. She needs that child to prove their genius.

And she needs Claire to suffer.

Author Kira Peikoff is a specialist in bioethics engineering and uses her expertise to bring readers into a real-world dilemma: should science be used to improve the human being? And would your opinion change if the baby were yours?

Peikoff tells us about her history in the bioethics field.

“I spent three years in graduate school absorbing as much as I could about the history and philosophy of bioethics, the current issues, and the emerging science. Without that program, I would not have been aware of the mitochondrial-replacement procedure (the three-parent baby technique) that gives the book its drama.

Peikoff (right) with the rest of her panel mates at ThrillerFest 2019.

“I also would not have had the context to explore the interesting questions while I was writing. Was there a historical precedent for secret reproductive research? Why does society view radical new biological innovations with fear? Is there ever a justification to manipulate the genes of an embryo? At what point in the research process is such an experiment irresponsible (and rightly illegal), or acceptable and welcome for the benefit of humanity? Is it ethical for a mother to consent to a procedure on an embryo that has never been tried? And if that mother takes a giant leap into the unknown, should society consider her reckless or brave?”

MOTHER KNOWS BEST explores the dilemma between a procedure being “medically possible” versus “morally acceptable.” According to Peikoff, “that is the million-dollar question in bioethics today. My opinion is that ‘medically possible’ does not automatically equate to ‘morally acceptable.’ There must be an ironclad justification to go through with it—i.e., this is the only way to secure the health of the future child who would otherwise face certain death or a life of extremely poor quality.

“The research must be sufficiently tested in animals before it is tried in humans, and the subjects in the trial must be able to understand the risks and benefits to give their consent. If these conditions are met, as in the book, then I believe genetically engineering an embryo can be a moral procedure that helps a child avoid a life of suffering. At the very least, our government should allow it to be studied.”

According to Peikoff, a factual occurrence inspired the novel. “A New York doctor wanted to offer this procedure to a couple that carried a deadly mitochondrial mutation,” she says. “Because the US doesn’t allow this kind of experimentation, he flew the couple to a clinic in Mexico, which has little regulation, and carried out the procedure there, then implanted the three-parent embryo into the woman. It was later reported that a healthy child was born, but follow-up has not been publicized—the FDA sent the doctor a warning letter for leaving the country to perform an illegal experiment.”

Peikoff and her husband.

While writing her novel, Peikoff experienced an unexpected coincidence in personal timing. “In February 2016, I had already decided I wanted to focus on genetic engineering as the foundation of a new novel, and I wrote the first few pages in early March. But I was a little nervous to write about motherhood, having no experience myself. Well, that was the very week I found out I was pregnant. My son was born that November, so I ended up writing Claire’s pregnancy section while I was going through it myself. I also got to the part about her labor before mine happened. I wasn’t sure if my depiction of the pain had any bearing on reality. Did I make it too extreme? Sure enough, a few months after I gave birth, I re-read that part and thought, ‘Yep, that pretty much captures it!’”

Besides providing readers with riveting entertainment, there is an underlying message nestled within the pages of MOTHER KNOWS BEST. Peikoff hopes to give readers “a stronger appreciation of the upsides of medical research. Despite all the dark twists and turns in the story (it’s a thriller after all), I am strongly pro-innovation, and I believe that science and medical technology are capable of immense good. I hope that readers who might otherwise have been completely turned off by the idea of genetic engineering at least have a more open mind about the benefits it can yield, when done responsibly in the right cases. Note—I am not talking about designer babies, or using science to create superhumans. I’m talking about using it to prevent disease and suffering.”

And Peikoff herself has benefited from medical technology. “I’m a bionic woman! I went through a harrowing experience in 2010 when I faced blindness in one eye due to a spontaneous detached retina, but I was fortunate to see one of NYC’s top eye surgeons. I got a silicone buckle permanently implanted around my eyeball (under my eyelid, you can’t see it). Since then, my vision has been stable. Not a day goes by that I take my sight for granted, or the skill of my incredible doctor, who has since become a friend. In a full-circle twist, my son was born on his birthday. Now, every November 1st, I send him a card.”

MOTHER KNOWS BEST is a thrilling, timely read that will have readers not only trying to unravel the twisted DNA strands of secrets and lies, but asking the question “How far would I go to have a healthy child?”

Kira Peikoff (homepage) Photo credit: Matt Jacob

K. L. Romo
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