Research on the manufacture of egg-like and sperm-like cells for the purpose of producing laboratory-crafted human children is proceeding rapidly. The objective is to turn ordinary body cells of prospective parents into artificial eggs and sperm. Though ostensibly developed to facilitate reproduction in individuals for whom this capability is impaired or unavailable, the use of laboratory produced eggs and sperm represent an opening for the routine production and commercialization of “designer babies.” These are individuals whose hereditary components are technologically modified to meet one or more specified objectives.
Researchers refer to creating eggs and sperm (gametes) in the laboratory as in vitro gametogenesis or IVG. The experimental process begins with “somatic” or body cells, e.g., from adult blood or skin. These cells are not those that evolved to produce gametes during embryonic development. The somatic cells are modified with extra DNA or RNA, or by exposing them to proteins or drugs, which has the effect of turning some of them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The iPSCs are next exposed to other biomolecules or drugs, to convert them into cells resembling the specialized cells of the body, such as eggs or sperm. Molecular tests of artificially differentiated cells invariably show them to be not identical to their natural counterparts (also see below).
Promoters suggest that IVG would make it possible for medically infertile people to have biologically related children without seeking authentic eggs or sperm from a donor. Additionally, advocates for the technology’s clinical use argue that it will help people have biologically related children who are not medically infertile but who could be considered “socially” infertile. This category would include same sex couples or gay individuals as well as people past the age of viable medical reproduction. The technology would also make it possible for a fertile person wanting to become a single parent of a biologically related child to do so without gametes (egg or sperm) donated by an identifiable second person (solo IVG).
If it works, the technology will also make it possible to assist a “uni-parent” to reproduce; that is, a person from whom both synthetic eggs and sperm are derived. There are also possibilities for assisting “multiplex parenting” where more than two individuals want to have genetic ties to a single child. For all these categories, the preferencing of genetically related children over adopted children is implicit.
The technology, should it find its way into fertility clinics, may reduce the number of donor gametes that are necessary, but it is likely to vastly increase the need for women to serve as surrogates, especially for same-sex males seeking to reproduce genetically, unless the creation of artificial wombs, currently an actively researched prospect, becomes a reality. Proponents of IVG, acknowledging the health risks and discomfort associated with egg extraction, count as a benefit the expected reduced demand for women’s eggs. They fail to note, however, that for many decades the fertility industry has ignored calls for it to include health warnings on advertisements seeking young women to supply eggs and to investigate the long-term health risks for egg donors by establishing a national health registry. This does not bode well for how the increased number of surrogates would be targeted, especially in impoverished and patriarchal countries where patterns of coercive paternalism work against the ability of women to consent freely to function as surrogates.