Human embryo

Skin Cells Into Babies: Bioethicists Freakout Again

Will most babies be created using in vitro gametogenesis in 40 years?

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EggSpermBabyIVFElla1977Dreamstime
Ella1977/Dreamstime

In the not too distant future most human babies will be born using eggs and sperm produced from the skin cells of their parents, claims Stanford University law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely in his book, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction. Basically, Greely is making informed speculation how in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) will progress over the next few years. And considerable progress has been made.

For example, Japanese researchers have turned skin cells from mice into eggs which they fertilized to produce embryos that were implanted into surrogates that then gave birth to healthy mouse pups. In April, Spanish researchers announced that they had made significant progress toward transforming human skin cells into viable sperm.

Harvard bioethicist Glenn Cohen and his colleagues described how "disruptive reproductive technologies" derived from IVG might evolve in a January article in the journal Science Translational Medicine. They go on to assert that "IVG raises vexing ethical and social policy challenges in need of redress."

First let's consider the biomedical benefits of IVG. One result would be the creation of an unlimited supply of early-stage embryos for research. In the reproductive realm, IVG could produce sperm or eggs for people suffering from various forms of infertilty, e.g., congenital and chemotherapy-induced. In addition, IVG could be used to prevent mitochondrial diseases by creating eggs without those mutations and boost regenerative medicine by creating patient-specific stem cell lines that could be used as transplants to replace diseased tissues and organs.

More speculatively, IVG could be used by same sex couples to produce genetically related children. In addition, since skin cells could be used to produce both sperm and eggs, they might be used to create single-parent children (Women wanting a boy would have to find a donated Y-chromosome.) In addition, there is the possibility that someone lift some cells left behind on a glass or comb by a celebrity and turn them into gametes without their permission. Furthermore, the ability to produce unlimited quantities of gametes and embryos will make it feasible to use genome-editing techniques to correct genetic defects and, perhaps, eventually introduce gene variants that could enhance physical and mental functioning.

Glenn and his colleagues observe that some religious believers object to the creation of embryos outside of human bodies and that doctrinaire anti-market folks oppose the "commodification" of human reproduction. Certainly, opponents are entitled to their opinions, but there is no ethical reason why their beliefs should be permitted to interfere with the biomedical and reproductive choices of those who don't agree with them.

Safety concerns will be paramount before rolling out this technology. With regard to reproduction, one benchmark might be that the likelihood of producing birth defects in babies using IVG is no greater than IVF. As I explained in my Designer Babies and Human Enhancement lecture in Moscow:

Greely believes that in about 40 years half of all American babies will born using what he calls Easy PGD. At that time most people will use gametes produced from their skin cells to create scores of IVF embryos that will each have his or her entire genomes sequenced. Prospective parents will then choose among the embryos based on which combination of genetic traits they would prefer. Presumably they would tend avoid those embryos afflicted with debilitating genetic diseases.

Greely believes that Easy PGD will be extremely cheap, e.g., whole genome testing should fall to around $10 by the beginning of the next decade. Easy PGD would also make it possible for same sex couples to have offspring genetically related to both parents and it might even be possible for a person to have both sperm and eggs created from their skin cells, enabling them to be both mother and father of their child.

Interestingly, biologist Craig Venter, the leader of the group that raced the government to a tie in sequencing the human genome, and now founder of the life extension company Human Longevity, Inc. can sequence a fetal genome and give the mother "a picture of what her future child will look like at 18."

"There is a yuck factor here," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University in The New York Times today. "It strikes many people as intuitively yucky to have three parents, or to make a baby without starting from an egg and sperm. But then again, it used to be that people thought blood transfusions were yucky, or putting pig valves in human hearts." Just so.

Naturally, Glenn and his colleagues call for a vigorous ethical debate and government regulation of the technologies. I would gently suggest that a front page article in the Times means that a vigorous public debate is already taking place.

With regard to government regulation—there may be a role for it to the extent that safety issues cannot be handled by developers of the technology. However, the government should certainly stay far, far away from any eugenic efforts to tell people when and what sort of children they may have. The last time the U.S. government started meddling with the reproductive decisions of Americans, it didn't turn out well.

For more background, see my article, "Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?"

NEXT: Jeff Jacoby on Confederate Army and Red Army statues

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  1. Will most babies be created using in vitro gametogenesis in 40 years?

    The vast majority of babies will continue to be created using fuckin’, Ronald.

    1. This and his notion that self-driving cars will end individual private ownership of motor vehicles indicates that Bailey has odd ideas about what motivates people.

      1. I think it just shows that Ron is optimistic that humanities problems are solvable, and that he thinks Science is neat. It’s almost a crime to be an optimist if you’re libertarian, it seems, although I too am very skeptical of things like automated vehicles and AGW.

        1. I am not sure how the “end if sex” and the “end if privately owned vehicles” is optimistic. It is making a lot of unexamined assumptions if it is.

          1. It’s optimistic from a certain point of view, specifically a technocratic point of view, although I don’t think you’re fairly summarizing either.

            As an example, most fertilizations happening through IVG isn’t the same thing as the end of sex. (It definitely wouldn’t be.)

            Nor are automated vehicles necessarily the end of private ownership of vehicles. (It probably wouldn’t be.)

            1. I don’t think it would be the “end” in either xase myself, but that is the theme of the book Bailey mentioned about reproduction and what Bailey has said he thinks where self driving cars lead to.

        2. It’s almost a crime to be an optimist if you’re libertarian

          If you’re not a cynical, pessimistic misanthrope than you’re not doing libertarianism right.

        3. I think it just shows that Ron is optimistic

          I remember when most libertarians were optimistic.
          Good times.

    2. The vast majority of babies will continue to be created using fuckin’, Ronald.

      You haven’t been following recent developments in the field of sex robots, have you? “Fucking” and “making babies” are two different things combined into one activity – this is a case where dividing the work into two separate parts is more efficient rather than less.

      1. Still – this whole process sounds expensive. IVF is unbelievably expensive already without the added layer of designer genes.

        The old way is both free and somewhat biologically compulsory. I don’t see it being supplanted anytime soon.

        1. “Free”? SOMEONE’S never been married.

          1. 27 years this July, and yes – still never married.

  2. Great. More women in chains than ever.

    /Gloria Steinem

    1. The preferred nomenclature is “Tanks”.

      1. 10,000 internet points for making a Space: Above and Beyond reference. Spend them wisely.

    2. Hawt.

  3. Certainly, opponents are entitled to their opinions, but there is no ethical reason why their beliefs should be permitted to interfere with the biomedical and reproductive choices of those who don’t agree with them.

    I believe that’s called ‘democracy’.

    1. Absolutely.

      People are free to BURN IN HELL!!! MUHAHAHAHAHA! I need more souls!

        1. Who’s the dofus singing?

          No Rob Halford, no Judas Priest.

  4. My concern is just that while we’re removing cystic fibrosis genes and such, we don’t go ahead and manually combine two people with fertility issues without addressing that deficiency as well. Becoming dependent on machines for reproduction is already a bit of an issue according to Walking Dead and Last Man on Earth.

    1. Why wouldn’t we edit those genes as well? I would bet a person who can afford gene editing will edit all of the undesirable traits. Heck, I’d select for more desirable traits if I could. Blonde hair, blue eyes, athletic, intellect, artistic talent could all be chosen once we know what genes control them.

      1. We can finally have the perfect Soviet Man, or Arian!

        Or uhh…too soon?

        1. Never too soon, comrade.

      2. We are at least a century away from understanding and being able to accurately edit DNA at that level.

  5. Yeah, there is no ethical reason to legally interfere with one person implementing their belief that human individuals can be property. Nothing can go wrong with that. It is inconceivable by the standards of human history.

    1. he’s talking about reproduction not slavery.

      1. He is talking about ideas of the moral value of individual lives getting in the way of using humans as lab animals.

        1. uh.. no. He’s talking about reproduction not using humans as lab animals.

    2. As a libertarian, I’m staunchly of the belief that human beings are property. Namely, that I own myself.

      1. Is your ownership of yourself inalienable or can another entity own you?

        1. That raises an interesting point – in ancient Rome, you could sell yourself into slavery in order to settle your debts.

          If Libertopia were surrounded by a society where slavery was practiced, would it be forbidden to sell yourself into slavery?

          1. Can you have Libertopia without inalienable human rights?

            If the answer is “yes”, then Libertarianism negates itself, in my opinion.

            1. But it may, in fact, be the case that Libertarianism negates itself.

              If I own myself, then what right does someone else have to tell me that I can’t sell myself, or that I can’t alienate my own rights?

              Not pursuing an agenda here – just thinking out loud.

            2. The alternative is leviathan. And usually tyrannical leviathan.

              1. If you clsim.that human rights are alienable then thst is the sure path to leviathan as it is the sure path to saying that human rights exist only as lip service, if at all.

  6. That’s pretty cool, although ultimately there are a whole lot of ethical concerns once you can essentially mass-produce humans. Would it be wrong, for instance, to grow a human only until a certain point just to harvest organs? As long as they’re never ‘woken up’, or perhaps even grown with certain developmental flaws in their brains, one could easily make the argument they’re sub-human and therefore usable as spare parts.

    “More speculatively, IVG could be used by same sex couples to produce genetically related children.”

    This is actually what I thought of first, and that does sound pretty cool, but then I thought of ‘historical babies’ where someone would find some old skin cells of Hitler or JFK for their babies.

    It’s both fascinating and the stuff of nightmares at the same time.

    1. Ethical concerns are only for those who aren’t woke enough to realize that things like ethics and morality are merely artificial social constructs like good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse, male and female, Negro and Caucasian, Irish and Cherokee, etc. “Ethical concerns” is just so judgmental and judgmentalism leads to intolerance, don’t you know, and there’s no tolerating intolerance.

      1. Seriously, what was wrong in principle with the Tuskegee Experiments except that the subjects were only black men?

        Science cannot be held back ny such anachronistic concepts as ethics!

    2. Pigs seem like a cheaper/faster spare parts host than a brain dead human you have to keep on lifesupport till puberty.

      1. also, byproduct bacon.

        1. also bacon flavored solyent green

          1. Soylent Green is Piggies!

      2. Pig parts can’t replace, say, the entire heart. Or lungs. Or any other major organ that you need to live but have no spares of.

        Perfect donors with zero rejection chance? Yeah, I’d say that’s something a lot of people would kill for. Literally.

        I mean, it will be happening in the black market legal or not. So eh, we’ll see what happens. I like the idea of a clone kept in stasis that you can upload your brain into at, say, 65 years old. Obviously there would be huge problems with that, but it would be ‘neat’ for me personally to live forever even if ‘another me’ had to ‘die’ to make it happen. Hence the concept of, if I clone myself do I own my clone? It’s literally me as to how we understand things now.

        1. We would have to understand the relationship between agency and body much better before we could make that call.

          My initial hot take, though, would be that if your “will” doesn’t govern that other body, then that body is not “yours.”

          1. I don’t see how having a clone would be any different than having an identical twin.

          2. Indeed, it’s a grotesque thing to be sure which is why most places outright ban that type of thing. It’s not because it couldn’t be massively helpful to mankind, it’s more like because of where it could eventually lead. Perhaps the lessons of the atomic bomb were learned, in that sometimes stopping to ask ‘should we’ is an important step.

    3. Would it be wrong, for instance, to grow a human only until a certain point just to harvest organs?

      By the time this process is there, it will be far more efficient just to print replacement organs as needed.

    4. You can say the same about raising animals to eat them. They don’t wake up to what’s going to happen to them, so it doesn’t bother them, so there’s no harm.

  7. Well, I certainly can’t see how any of this could possibly go wrong. ONWARD!

    1. Shit, what’s next? A polio vaccine?

  8. “the government should certainly stay far, far away from any eugenic efforts to tell people when and what sort of children they may have”

    And yet our government doing this is, of course, 100% certain

  9. sounds like that episode of tng where ryker wanted to bang the surrogate.

    1. Couldn’t every episode of TNG be accurately described as “the one where Ryker wanted to bang the” whatever?

      1. he was deep inside that black goo

        1. Subsequent iterations of the show had to change the tagline to say “to boldly go where Ryker’s D had been before.”

  10. Sounds legit

  11. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen and read too much science fiction, but I don’t think anybody who can’t naturally reproduce should have any offspring. All that does it pass down genes that were never supposed to be passed down, and increase the likelihood that the next generation can’t reproduce naturally. Eventually, humans will only be able to reproduce artificially.

    I don’t think the government should ban these practices, but they sure as hell shouldn’t be paying for peoples’ IVF, fertility treatments, artificial insemination, or any other means of unnatural reproduction. None of these are necessary or life-saving medical treatments.

    1. genes that were never supposed to be passed down

      “Supposed to”? According to whom?

    2. Should we also eliminate natal ICU’s – after all, these babies would have died without extreme technical help and that will inevitably lead (according to the laws of evolution – ignoring the fact that its adaptation to an environment that we are adapting to us and that mutations that are neither harmful nor beneficial will still spread throughout a population or that many harmful mutations are still with us and widespread because they are part and parcel of beneficial mutations, like sickle cell anemia) us to requiring natal ICU’s to reproduce.

      Or the ones with diabetese. Should withhold medical care in this case too lest we all need insulin supplementation to survive on the Serengeti in the future.

  12. Will most babies be created using in vitro gametogenesis in 40 years?

    We could hope. But even in 40 years most babies will be created by the ‘Condoms destroy the feeling and I promise to pull out in time’ method.

    Just like they are today.

  13. “It strikes many people as intuitively yucky to have three parents, or to make a baby without starting from an egg and sperm.”

    Didn’t you think sexual intercourse was yucky when you 1st heard about it? I mean, those are the parts that produce stuff we’re getting rid of & would wash off if we got it on us!

  14. I’ve been following this type of research rather loosely, but keeping an eye on it all the same, and it’s very, very promising. I don’t believe this means that we’re going to be growing babies outside the womb in even half of all cases. That’s an extremely generous estimate. It may be desirable for SOME people, but it’s not going to be for *most* people. However, when you combine THESE breakthroughs with the OTHER recent progress in lab-growing reproductive organs, transplanting them and successfully producing offspring, it seems much more likely that we’re headed for a future where people who want to father or bear children naturally, but were unable to for whatever reason, can now do so. For example, a post-operative transgender woman married to a cisgender woman would be able to lab-grow and transplant her own female reproductive organs, use skin cells from her wife to produce sperm, then use that to impregnate herself. Or, similarly, a transgender man married to a cisgender woman could lab-grow and transplate his own male reproductive organs, and then impregnate his wife.

    It’s not — wait for it… — inconceivable.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    Sorry; I’ll see myself out.

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