Mothers of today, mothers of tomorrow

By Emanuele Mangione


Who are the “mothers” of today? It is common opinion that assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) changed motherhood forever, especially biological motherhood. Nowadays a child can have a single biological mother, that is someone who contributes both genetically and gestationally to their creation; two biological mothers, that is a genetic mother who provides her own genetic material and a gestational mother who provides gestation; two genetic mothers, that is two individuals who provide their nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, respectively; or, hypothetically speaking, even two gestational mothers, with the help of a technique called “Reciprocal effortless In Vitro Fertilization” (ReIVF). ReIVF allows two individuals to “have” the same embryo in both their bodies at different times, albeit the embryo is implanted only in one body.

When ReIVF is used, the eggs provided by an individual, A, are mixed with the sperm of a donor in a device. Such a device is then inserted in the vagina or womb of A for few days or hours in such a way that the fertilization and embryo development occur within the device that is inside the body of A. Later, the device is extracted from the body of A and the retrieved embryo(s) is finally implanted in the body of another individual, B, who carries it until delivery.

ARTs are typically said to have divided biological motherhood, to the extent that the splits they caused have often been considered irreparable. So, I wanted to show the other side of the coin: not only could ARTs divide motherhood, but they could also “recombine” it in new ways to create new concepts of motherhood, as well as make up two biological mothers who are both genetic and gestational; in other words, two “complete” biological mothers.

In my article, I consider the possible combination of a mitochondrial transfer technique known as “maternal spindle transfer” and ReIVF and suggest that ARTs have a constructive potential towards (biological) motherhood. This is relevant for two main reasons. First, many couples such as lesbian and queer couples could benefit from having a unique reproductive option that enables them to be both the genetic and gestational mothers of the same child. Second, the split between genetic and gestational motherhood could be somehow “repaired”.

The use and development of new ARTs suggest that there is neither a fixed category of motherhood nor is there a “true” or “perfect” mother, that is “the Mother”; rather, they widen the ways to be(come) mothers as well as help point out how differently one can experience and value motherhood. Hence, I argue that there are many concepts of “motherhood”—“genetic motherhood”, “gestational motherhood”, and so on—that ARTs ceaselessly ‘construct’ and dismantle.

What makes a “genetic mother”? When can one be called “gestational mother”? What is motherhood nowadays? And to what extent is biological relatedness important to define motherhood(s)? In my article, I seek to address all these questions, especially from a bioethical viewpoint. The influence of ARTs on motherhood is a topic that particularly intrigued me when I was writing my master’s degree thesis. Since I dealt with the topic of same-sex parenting, I wondered about the use of ARTs by same-sex couples to create their families and asked myself about the ethical acceptability of such practices. I started to read newspapers and found out about the existence of ReIVF; thus, I envisaged how ReIVF could be used both on its own and combined with other techniques. I believe that techniques like ReIVF should be investigated more, especially when it comes to the ethical and sociopolitical implications they could have on the different concepts of motherhood.

In the future, we could have to deal with an even larger number of “partial” motherhoods, and there could emerge extremely challenging situations in which the biological motherhood of the same offspring is disputed between many individuals. Bioethics must proactively take those cutting-edge issues into consideration. We all must take them into consideration, mostly because motherhood concerns everybody and, according to some scholars, even “human destiny”.

We all are the children of one or more mothers, at least up to now, and while many of us have been raised by one or more mothers, others perceive themselves as “mothers” although they do not always receive legal or social recognition as such (e.g., mtDNA donors in the UK). For these reasons, we all must wonder whether and how motherhood(s) will change in the future: to what extent will ARTs and the use of technologies like artificial wombs influence motherhood(s)? Who will be the “mothers” of tomorrow?


Paper title: ‘Recombining’ biological motherhoods. Towards two ‘complete’ biological mothers

Author: Emanuele Mangione

Affiliations: University of Insubria

Competing interests: None declared.

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