Scientists hail new era of ‘motherless babies’

No womb at the inn: A highly theoretical approach to our reproductive futures.

For 200 years, our knowledge of reproduction has been clear: sperm + egg = baby. But scientists say they may have found a way to create babies with two biological dads. Should we celebrate?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? It is a question pondered since the time of Ancient Greece, when Aristotle decided that the answer must be both.

Now, scientists say the egg could be removed from the equation all together. Dr Tony Perry and his team announced this week that they have successfully bred mice without using a normal egg cell. Instead, they used sperm to fertilise a kind of non-viable embryo called a parthenogenote, which multiplies more like a normal cell. Then they ‘tricked’ it into developing into an embryo using special chemicals, planted it into a surrogate, and a new mouse was born. It survived, and even went on to have offspring of its own.

The results challenge two centuries of reproductive biology. We thought that only a sperm and an egg cell could create a mammal baby. But Perry says that in theory, the technique could be used to fertilise other cells in the body, such as skin cells, as long as half the chromosomes were removed first. In a ‘speculative and fanciful’ world, this could allow two men to have a baby which shared both their genes.

‘Will we be able to do that? I don’t know,’ he said. ‘But I think if it is ever possible, people will look back and say this is where it started.’

Elsewhere, scientists have been speculating about another kind of ‘motherless baby’: one grown outside the womb. This process was named ‘ectogenesis’ in 1924 by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane. He predicted that by 2074, only 30% of births would be natural.

But the transhumanist Zoltan Istvan believes that this will happen much sooner — closer to 20 or 30 years. Scientists have already grown goat and mouse embryos in artificial wombs, he points out. The science of these is very complex. But it essentially involves ‘an amniotic fluid-filled aquarium with a bunch of feeding tubes and monitoring cables.’

Combine these two scientific concepts — two-dad babies and artificial wombs — and you could detach women from reproduction entirely.

Baby talk

This could be an amazing opportunity, says Istvan. Childbirth has been used to oppress women since the dawn of time, whether by declaring them ‘unclean’, or forcing them to stay at home, or paying them less than men. Freed from biology, women could truly be in charge of when and how they have children. As a bonus, gay men and infertile women would not need surrogates.

Be careful, warn others. Less than ten years after Haldane coined the word ‘ectogenesis’, Aldous Huxley wrote the sci-fi novel Brave New World, featuring a chilling ‘Hatchery and Conditioning Centre’ where hundreds of babies were grown and sorted into ‘castes’. It reminds us that well-meaning technology can be used for darker motives.

You Decide

  1. Will the possibility of ‘motherless babies’ help women or be used against them?
  2. Would an important family bond be lost if artificial wombs became normal?

Activities

  1. We have drawn a (highly speculative) diagram of how to make a ‘motherless baby’ (see above). Draw your own diagram of the natural reproductive process. For a reminder, use the video under Become An Expert.
  2. Imagine a world where ectogenesis has become an option. Write a short story from the perspective of a woman who is weighing up the alternative options for having a child.

Some People Say...

“No child should be deprived of a mother.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How likely is this?
Pretty unlikely. Mice and goats are not people, for one thing — the same methods might not work on human embryos. Also, Dr Perry’s experiment did still use an egg cell, even if it was ‘out-of-date’. As he was explaining his results to journalists, he reminded them that everything else was ‘speculative’ at least five times — so don’t tear up your biology textbooks just yet.
If it’s so unlikely, why are we discussing it?
It still highlights a lot of interesting issues about families, gender roles, and scientific ethics. Like it or not, women have been grappling with the possibility and reality of childbirth for a very long time. This biological fact helps to shape the way we all relate to each other — so changing it would have implications we cannot even imagine yet.

Word Watch

Team
From the University of Bath, England.
Parthenogenote
An unfertilised egg cell which has begun to divide, despite only having one set of chromosomes (see below). In this case that division was prompted artificially, and the egg had divided into two cells when the scientists took one and fertilised it. Roughly a quarter of the fertilised cells became mouse pups, say the scientists.
Chromosomes
Threadlike structures found in a cell’s nucleus which contain that organism’s genetic information. Humans have 23 pairs.
Transhumanist
Someone who believes that humans should take control of their own evolution, usually through technology.
Amniotic fluid
A clear liquid which surrounds the foetus as it grows in the womb.
Surrogates
A woman who is pregnant with a baby which is not her own, usually on behalf of a same-sex or infertile couple. In Britain this can only be done ‘altruistically’, meaning she cannot be paid.
Castes
Each caste, or class, had a specific role to play in Huxley’s imaginary society. For example, ‘Alphas’ were leaders and thinkers while ‘Epsilons’ did menial work.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.