The Science of Single, Same Sex, and “Multiplex” Parenting: Could this Be Our Reproductive Future?
A new Advanced Reproductive Technology called In vitro gametogenesis (IVG) is giving the phrase “it takes a village” new meaning. It was developed out of the discovery that scientists can now use stems cells to create gametes, which can then be made into either sperm cells or egg cells. IVG really started to turn heads when scientists proved that these cells could actually produce offspring in mice.
The social implications of this new technology will make us rethink the concept of modern family
The implications for this technology are that down the road it could not only offer a cure for infertility in humans, but also radically change the nature and our definition of biological family. That’s because the technology could help same sex couples reproduce so that each partner is biologically related to their child. Even more radical, it could also facilitate “multiplex parenting,” a term coined by scientists in the Journal of Medical Ethics, as “a radical expansion of reproductive autonomy that allowed more than two persons to engage simultaneously in genetic parenting.”
Beyond biology, the social implications of this new technology will make us rethink the concept of modern family and its ethical use. Sonia Suter, a law professor at George Washington University recently wrote about the ethics of IVG in the Journal of Law and Biosciences:
Among these issues are concerns about the ‘unnaturalness’ of the means of procreation, the difficulties of determining parentage, challenges to the meaning of procreation and parentage, as well as worries about physical and psychosocial harms to the future child. Many of these concerns arise because IVG seems radically different from other means of procreation. In the context of prenatal screening, IVG raises concerns about its eugenic implications and potential to exacerbate social inequities.
Biological Connection for Same Sex Couples
For a lesbian couple, IVG could help to produce sperm from one female partners’ stem cells. The couple could then conceive using the natural egg of the other partner and the IVG produced sperm. The couple could then choose whose uterus in which the resulting embryo would be implanted. With gay male partners, the scenario would be similar: an egg cell would be produced from the stem cell of one partner and then inseminated with the sperm of the other to produce an embryo. They would clearly still need a surrogate to carry the developing embryo to term.
Single Parent and Multiple Parent Reproduction
IVG could also make it possible for embryos to be reproduced from multiple parents or a single parent. In the case of a single person, it would involve creating sperm and egg cells from their stem cells and reproducing them. The authors of a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics make it clear that this is not the same as cloning because the process would not involve replicating the person’s DNA.
Multiplex parenting, which involves more than two parents, raises the strongest ethical implications. In 2015, the UK became the first country to legalize “three-parent babies,” through the using two new technologies called mitochondrial donation and maternal spindle transfer.
A story by Carl Engelking in Discover magazine describes it this way:
Fertilizing a maternal egg and a donor egg with the father’s sperm in a dish, and then removing the nuclei of both embryos after one day of development (when the embryo is still a single cell). The donor embryo then contains just a cell membrane and mitochondria. The parental nucleus is implanted into this new shell and goes on developing. The second approach occurs before fertilization. This technique removes the nucleus and other innards of the maternal egg (leaving behind the diseased mitochondria) and implants them into a donor egg, which is then fertilized with the father’s sperm.
IVG could take this scenario beyond three parents to up to 32 genetic relationships.
As new Advanced Reproductive Technologies become reality, we will have to continue to deeply consider the ethics around our choices to use them, so that they contribute to the most thoughtful and positive evolution of family relationships.