It’s been said many times before, but it bears repeating: The birth control pill allowed us to have sex without making babies, and assisted reproductive technologies allowed us to make babies without having sex. My usual go-to example of this is Elton John and his partner David Furnish. Elton and David came to California to buy eggs from a woman and rent the womb of another in order to have their two children. No sexual act required, unless you count sperm retrieval via masturbation as a sexual act.
This past week it was announced that scientists had created mice using the skin cells from two fathers.
Here’s the science of what they did:
The study, which has been submitted for publication in a leading journal, relied on a sequence of intricate steps to transform a skin cell, carrying the male XY chromosome combination, into an egg, with the female XX version.
Male skin cells were reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state to create so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The Y-chromosome of these cells was then deleted and replaced by an X chromosome “borrowed” from another cell to produce iPS cells with two identical X chromosomes.
“The trick of this, the biggest trick, is the duplication of the X chromosome,” said Hayashi. “We really tried to establish a system to duplicate the X chromosome.”
Let me break it down. Men have an XY chromosome while women have an XX. To make a baby you need the XY from the father and the XX from the mother and depending on how they XY and XX come together you will most often have a boy baby or a girl baby. There are exceptions such as Klinefelter Syndrome or Turner Syndrome. But what if you have a same-sex male couple who wants a baby and doesn’t want to buy eggs from a woman? Or you have some form of infertility, like Turner Syndrome which affects women who have a missing or partially missing X chromosome.
You may recall during the George Bush era we had the cloning and stem cell debates. ( If not, watch our first film for free, Lines that Divide: The Great Stem Cell Debate). Stem cells are unique in that they are versatile, can be manipulated and grown into any type of cell in the body. Therefore, these male stem cells can be manipulated and made to grow into female cells.
Whether it be artificial wombs, creating synthetic egg and sperm, or moving full force into designing babies GATTACA style, unethical human experimentation is our main concern. And in the case of children yet to be born, experimentation on them without their consent.
We have a long way to go if this will move into human trials, where babies are born from two fathers but from where we sit, artificial wombs and CRISPR techniques are progressing while millions of frozen embryos go unnoticed in the U.S. Will men and women, mothers and fathers, become obsolete? We don’t know. But we will continue to sound the alarm to stay human and make babies the old-fashioned way.
- Jennifer Lahl, MA, BSN, RN, is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Lahl couples her 25 years of experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, a hospital administrator, and a senior-level nursing manager with a deep passion to speak for those who have no voice. Lahl’s writings have appeared in various publications including Cambridge University Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and the American Journal of Bioethics. As a field expert, she is routinely interviewed on radio and television including ABC, CBS, PBS, and NPR. She is also called upon to speak alongside lawmakers and members of the scientific community, even being invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels to address issues of egg trafficking; she has three times addressed the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women on egg and womb trafficking.