8 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington
The news that Japanese researchers have successfully induced skin cells to behave like viable eggs, which have then been fertilised to create a new generation of mice, may well come to be seen as a scientific milestone. And if it’s not that, it’s definitely very, very cool. (The original paper is here.)
Though the research does not necessarily translate into humans, it appears to demonstrate that the genetic material found in every cell in the body can be put to use in the creation of offspring. In principle, this offers infertile women the opportunity to have children that are genetically related, even if they do not have viable eggs of their own: cells from another part of the body could be used and “reprogrammed” to behave as eggs would. (Putting the procedure to use in humans would be illegal under current UK law, since the synthesised eggs would not be what the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act calls “permitted”. But the law is, after all, just the law.)
There will probably be concerns raised; but they aren’t obviously any more serious in relation to this technology than they would be in relation to others.
The most obvious concern – and, prima facie, the most powerful – would be about the safety of the procedure were it to be used in humans. Would any child created this way have any genetic “booby-traps” that might go off in later life? It may not be easy to see such dangers when the experimental creature is as short-lived as a mouse. Yet as long as the child were to have a life worth living, it is hard to see why it would ever be better for it not to have been created. Booby-traps might be undesirable, but they aren’t necessarily enough to veto the use of the procedure.
Concerns may also be raised about the idea that this represents creating children to order, and about human dignity. Such concerns are no more powerful here than they are elsewhere; it is certainly not obvious that they are definitively enough for us to be able to say that this research is in any way sinister. I’m not one of those who thinks that “dignity” should be consigned to the Index – but I don’t think it’s ever been a significant factor in winning an argument about reproductive technology yet, and it’s hard to see why that might change.
All the same, that something is not morally troubling in itself does not mean that it doesn’t generate interesting ethical questions. One has to do with the question of what it takes to be a mother in the first place. If we think that someone cannot be a mother without a genetic link to the child she raises, then that would suggest that anyone who wants to be a mother but who cannot generate eggs of her own would have a reason to embrace technology such as this. But it is not at all clear that a genetic relationship is a necessary criterion of motherhood – for example, there are millions of women who adopt, or foster, who count themselves as mothers in a full and rich sense; the same applies to step-parents. Motherhood need not imply a genetic relationship. And, of course, being a mother is not the only way to be a parent – and so even if motherhood is impossible without a technology like this, it doesn’t follow that parenthood isn’t. Being a parent-who-is-not-a-mother is good enough for about half the world’s stock of parents; and this suggests that it might well be good enough for the other half, too, should it come to it.
There’s a wider question, too, which has to do with the context of this research. Fertility research is expensive, as is its possible application. Meanwhile, there are millions of people around the world who lack basic sanitation and who die from easily preventable disease; millions more currently have their lives threatened by malaria, HIV and so on. (An infant dies every 20 seconds or so from diarrhoeal disease, for example (assuming my arithmetic is correct); and that’s pathetically easy and cheap to treat.) Hence while breakthroughs like this are, in their own terms, exciting and probably welcome, it is worth pausing to ask whether the money and effort expended might have been worth expending in other fields. It’s possible that the kind of infertility that’d be treated by this sort of intervention is somewhere on the list of first world problems.