Two Fathers… and an Inflated Role for Genes?

This is interesting: researchers in Texas are reporting that they’ve generated viable mice with two genetic fathers.  The science makes my head hurt, but PZ Myers gives a decent précis (although it’s still a bit long to reproduce here, and I’m not going to attempt even to give a précis of the précis).

The technology isn’t directly applicable to humans because of a difference between humans and mice that means that to use the same jiggery-pokery with human cells would result in infertility – it’s all to do with having XO, rather than XY chromosomes: apparently an XO mouse is fertile.  All the same: the point has been proven that you can get a mammal with two male genetic parents.  And that at least legitimises speculation about what would happen if we could get human cells to behave in the same way as mouse cells.

On the face of it, this is all very good news for gay men who want to have a child with their partner that is genetically related to both.  I don’t doubt that there’ll be the entirely predictable objections from some quarters… but I don’t see any moral problem with the technology.

Yet I’m not convinced that this report has automatically to be treated as a great advance; scientifically, it’s impressive – but ethically, there’s a lot of loose ends.  Not that I want to be the wet blanket, but… oh, all right then: I do.  There’s at least three arguments that I can see being advanced that would diminish excitement about the advance.  The first is one that Myers points out, and it’s that, although the offspring in the technique do not have a genetic female parent, the technique does still require a woman:

and a woman who has been embryonically modified as a blastocyst at that. Did you know women have rights, including the right to not be a vessel for a scientific experiment? It’s true. They also take years and years to grow to sexual maturity, so even if you got started right now it would be a dozen years before she started making oocytes for you, and by the way, she’d inform you that she only produces eggs for herself, not you.

There may be ways around this, but the techniques aren’t here yet. To produce eggs, we really don’t need the whole woman, just the ovary: another goal of stem cell research is to regrow organs from cells in a dish, for instance to build a new heart or pancreas for transplantation. Consider ovaries on the list of organs.

It’s one thing to generate a mouse to produce the right kind of oocyte and then harvest those oocytes; quite another to do the same to a human female.  So the technique – at least this technique, may never be put to work in humans.

But there’s a couple of other points that I can imagine being made, and they’re related.  One is that getting all excited about both partners in a gay relationship being genetic parents of a child is a bit… well… I was going to say “heteronormative”, but I’m not sure it’s exactly the right word.  The thought here is that we’re still privileging what is essentially a nuclear family model – effectively saying that heterosexual reproduction with genetic mummy and genetic daddy is, of course, the gold standard to which everyone should aspire, and that this is to be welcomed because it allows gay men to be that little bit more like that.  What we should be doing, the argument would continue, is embracing different family models, not all of which will be so conventional.

I don’t think the argument completely works – I don’t see the problem with people following whatever model family they choose, and if a gay couple chooses a family model that is in someway a bit like the conventional model, that’s just fine.  I can understand the point that’s being made, but if you can have heteronormativity, you can presumably also have homonormativity; and that would be, at least as far as I can see, just as flawed and restrictive.

But there is another, related, line of argument that’s stronger.  It centres on the idea of the importance of genetic relationships.  It’s not clear to me why genetic parenthood is all that important – and, if it’s not important, then that somewhat takes the wind out of the sails of any two-fathers technology that aspires to be anything other than cool science.

To see why, imagine that Bob has (a) a partner, Alice, with whom he wants to start a family, and (b) an identical twin brother, Fred.  If genetics are all that’s important, then Fred will have as much claim to be the father of any child of Bob and Alice, since clearly Bob and Fred would have an identical genetic output, and Alice ought to be indifferent between using Bob’s or Fred’s sperm.  It wouldn’t even matter that Alice and Fred had never had sex, because Alice could conceive without having had sex with Bob, too.  (Maybe Bob is HIV+ and Alice is so cautious that she won’t have sex with him, although she does still want his child.)  Clearly, this is absurd.

Of course, there is one big difference between Bob and Fred acting as genetic fathers – which is that the vector for Bob’s genetic material is generated in Bob’s testes, and the vector for Fred’s in Fred’s.  In a sense, that’s merely a matter of geography, though – after all, the genetic information encoded therein is identical; if we aren’t bothered whether the TV transmitter is in Yorkshire or Lancashire as long as the signal is clear, the same could well apply here – but it does point to what really makes the difference, which is that Alice wants Bob‘s child, not his brother’s.  The genes, qua genes, seem to me not to make a lot of difference.  Alice likes Bob; Bob and Fred aren’t interchangeable.  Therefore genes are, at most, a minor consideration.  Strike one against genes.

And, of course, there’s plenty of couples who are parents even though their child is adopted or born of donor gametes.  You don’t need to be genetically related to be a parent in a meaningful sense; and it’s not really obvious that being genetically related even adds much of a layer to parenthood – again, adopters or recipients of donor gametes do not necessarily feel they’re missing out.  And even if they do – well, the fact that someone happens to feel this way about an issue doesn’t indicate that their feeling is all that well-founded or morally important.  Moreover, it’s hard to say how much of that feeling is attributable to acculturation, and the unexamined expectation that genetic ties are necessary, if not sufficient, for parenthood that floats around the place.  Strike two against genes.

Some parents will say that, all the same, having a child is the epitome of what they can do together as a couple: what stronger symbol could there be of couplehood?  Perhaps none – except that if the only reason you want a child that’s genetically related to you and your partner is as a kind of proof that he, she or it really is your partner… well, that’s probably not a good reason to have a child.  OK, the child will still almost certainly have a life worth living, and so this doesn’t generate a reason not to procreate – but, all the same: if it’s a joint project you’re after, start a business.  At least that can be wound up if you start to hate each other in a few years.  A child that’s genetically related to you and your partner might be a symbol of the relationship, but symbols oughtn’t to be mistaken for anything more than mere symbols.  Strike three against genes.

In other words, the importance of a genetic tie is open to question.

And this brings us back to two-dads technology.  Unless we’re absolutely sure that genetics really is all that important, then how we ought to think about this kind of technology is moot.  If it turns out that genes really are important – and, phew, haven’t the last couple of generations been lucky to have been the only ones in the whole course of human history to have understood that! – then two-dads technology may well be correspondingly important.  If it turns out that genes aren’t at all important, then there would seem to be no particularly good reason to make use of the technique.  The more conventional means of using a surrogate mother or adopting would get you a family just as well, and less invasively.