Are you disgusted by your peers but still keen to bring a child into the world they inhabit? A team of scientists at the University of Manchester might have your answer: “single parent reproduction”. Which is exactly what it sounds like – a very complicated scientific process that essentially involves taking one person’s stem cells, making one of them male and the other female, before splicing them together to make a child.
If you want to go the other way entirely, the paper that César Palacios-González, John Harris and Giuseppe Testa published in March states that, within the next two years, we could be producing babies genetically related to three parents – or “multiplex parenting”, as they’ve dubbed it. Although it still has to be subjected to extensive ethical and legal review, the technology could avoid mitochondrial diseases being inherited from a mother – which surely seems like a step forward.
However, all this sci-fi science hasn’t gone down particularly well with more conservative commentators; half of the world is still getting its head around same-sex families, so it’s hardly surprising that people are freaking out about the prospect of multiple-parent children. I called Palacios-González for his take on the reaction, and to speak about the ethics of what he and his team have proposed.
VICE: Can you explain, in the simplest possible terms, what new advancement prompted your paper?
César Palacios-González: Human gametes [sperm and eggs] are produced naturally. But recently, scientists have been able to produce them in the lab using embryonic stem cell lines and induced pluripotent stem cells. Part of what this means is that they have been able to turn male somatic stem cells into female gametes, which led to us writing our paper.
Some of the stuff in there is bound to attract criticism – for instance, where you mention that lab-generated gametes represent the "most visible instance where biotechnological ingenuity could be used in pursuit of social experimentation”. Were you looking to stir up some controversy?
We weren't intentionally trying to stir up controversy; we simply presented arguments in favour of using in vitro-produced gametes for same-sex reproduction and what we call multiplex parenting – instances where a child would be genetically related to all the members of a polyamorous relation. Obviously this wasn't received with a standing ovation from the conservative sector.
What advantages do you see there being to multiplex parenting?
I think that multiplex parenting would be beneficial for members of polyamorous relationships who want to have children that are genetically related to every member of the relation. Just as IVF can be used to help couples to have children that are genetically related to them, in vitro-produced gametes could be used in the same fashion by people in polyamorous relationships.
Brigitte Garozzo, spokesperson for the Polyamory Action Lobby (Photo via)
You mention the relatively recent emergence of our standard two-parent model. Did you have any specific culture's family dynamics in mind when you were writing the paper?
We weren't thinking of a particular culture, but we've looked extensively at all the archaeological and anthropological evidence on polyandric [having more than one husband] and polygynic [having more than one wife] societies that have existed for centuries. I should be clear that we aren't saying that such cultures are perfect, or that we should imitate them. Each has its own advantages and problems, but they are proof that non-nuclear models exist and have existed for a very long time. Also, the natural world is full of instances where animals pool their resources for the upbringing of their own kin and others’ kin.
Can you explain how single parent reproduction is different from cloning?
In cloning you take the nucleus of a somatic cell and transfer it to an enucleated egg [a cell with the genetic material removed]. Next, the cell’s development is triggered and it's transferred into a womb. This process, if successful, creates a biological replica of the animal from which the cell nucleus was taken. In contrast, in single parent reproduction you have two gametes with different genetic information – as would happen with siblings – but both gametes are derived from the same individual. These are used to produce an embryo that could be implanted into a womb later on. This difference between using a somatic cell nucleus or gametes is important, because with the latter you would end up with someone who isn't an exact copy of the source of the gametes.
What are the possible benefits to this?
It would allow people to have children that are genetically related to them without having to resort to using someone else’s genes. However, this type of reproduction would increase the chance of producing children with ill health, even more than when first-degree cousins have children – so it's really just a hypothetical situation.
A human cell line colony being cloned in vitro (Photo via)
Critics have labelled this as mad science, saying it illustrates the "anything goes" mentality of modern science. What do you say to that?
I remember that someone labelled us as mad ethicists. I would ask them why they think that we're mad. Maybe they think we're mad for having started a new debate regarding reproductive technologies and reproductive freedom – you never know. But I'd say that they're wrong about the anything goes mentality – on the contrary; we thoroughly examine the ethical implications of these new technologies to make sure that anything doesn’t go. There are technological advances that are morally problematic, but in the paper we provided arguments to show that the moral obstacles to the use of in vitro derived gametes for same-sex reproduction and multiplex parenting are not insurmountable.
The actual motives for your work seem to be about equal opportunities. Do you see science as being a catalyst for improving tolerance in the future?
Yes, although science by itself does not improve tolerance. Certain advances in science and technology – for example, social media – facilitate public and academic discussion about tolerance and what it means to be tolerant. It's true that certain advances emphasise certain topics at certain times. For example, I think that this technology will bring more attention to the discussion about polyamory and same-sex relations.
You've said that this form of fertilisation is no more synthetic how than wearing glasses is synthetically seeing. Do you think it’s rational that we tend to favour things we perceive as being “natural”?
I think that, in general, we have a bias towards favouring what's natural, but such prejudice can be modified when considering the benefits that using other “non-natural” things could bring about. Many times we tend to favour what is natural because it's what we know and because it's more ready available, but such facts don't tells us that what is natural is always better.
IVF in action (Photo via)
The UK Government was one of the first to back the mitochondrial replacement technique that's currently under review. Would you say Britain is particularly open minded about progressive science?
I wouldn't use those words. What I would say is that, in Britain, there's a more informed public debate around scientific ideas and their application, and also that there are more spaces for doing so. This favours critical thinking and helps when the government has to legislate scientific advances that could be considered by some as morally problematic.
I think the most valid concern is the possibility of designer babies. How would you address people’s worries about this?
Currently this is an important debate in applied ethics. I think that those against the so-called “designer babies” have failed to present conclusive arguments so far. And I also think that people shouldn't worry that Britain will move from mitochondrial replacement to “designer babies” just like that. Just as we saw a huge amount of public and academic debate on mitochondrial replacement, we will see another one about “designer babies” before something actually happens.
Finally, in 2004, Pope John Paul II said practices like in vitro fertilisation represent “a technology that wants to substitute true paternity and maternity, and therefore that does harm to the dignity of parents and children alike”. How would you describe Jesus’ family structure?
I'm not sure how I would describe Jesus’ family structure. What I know is that Catholics and other conservative groups have a limited notion of dignity that directly depends on a religious worldview, and they want to force a notion of dignity backed by religious beliefs into a secular debate. The same thing happens with the notions of “true paternity and maternity”, and it's worth saying that religious worldviews should not dictate what paternity and maternity mean in a secular world.
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