Scientists: New fertility technique "raises spectre of embryo farming on unimaginable scale"
12 January 2017
The technique could lead to hundreds of embryos being produced and destroyed to achieve one pregnancy. Image: Getty.
A new fertility procedure that could allow sperm and eggs to be made from people's skin may lead to "embryo farming" on a massive scale and drive parents to have only "ideal" children, researchers have warned.
The procedure, in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) involves reprogramming adult cells into a younger, more versatile state, then growing them into functioning sex cells. The technology has so far only been demonstrated in mice, and is illegal to attempt on humans in the UK and US. However, Eli Adashi, professor of medical science at Brown University in Rhode Island, Glenn Cohen, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, argue in the journal Science Translational Medicine that it may be possible to make human eggs and sperm from skin "in the not too distant future".
Impact on society "must be planned for now"
The scientists say that the research is progressing so fast that the dramatic impact it could have on society must be planned for now.
"We try not to take a position on these issues except to point out that before too long we may well be facing them, and we might do well to start the conversation now," said Prof Adashi.
"IVG might raise the spectre of 'embryo farming' on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life," the researchers write. They also point out the ethical problems of creating hundreds of embryos when only a small number will be used for implantation, which also could intensify "concerns about parents selecting for their 'ideal' future child". (See SPUC's page on embryo abuse)
The paper lists among other hypothetical scenarios the possibility of creating sperm and egg cells from more than two people, or even from just one; for example making sperm from a woman's skin cells to fertilise her own eggs.
Embryos made by "denatured production process" seen as exploitable
Dr Anthony McCarthy, a bioethicist, commented:
"The issues raised by these developments are indeed fundamental. Society has become used to the adoption of 'quality-control' in the context of standard IVF, but IVG opens up the potential for a huge increase in the production of embryos with the possibility of selection of one embryo from 100 according to customer demands which may be unrelated to disease. The further distanced from natural procreation are the human embryos, the more the result of a denatured production process, the more they will be seen as exploitable. IVG also raises profound questions about motherhood and fatherhood and will contribute to confusion about these biologically-grounded roles, which any society needs to honour. Openness to new life and diversity through unifying personal acts is the way in which a child conceived is respected, and the couple too, whether fertile or not."