When in vitro fertilization was first developed, a lot of people were disturbed by the idea of creating a baby outside of the human baby – and many still are. Nevertheless, opinions have cooled somewhat over the years and IVF has become so common that it accounts for almost two percent of babies that are born in our country each year. In total, more than 6.5 million babies have already been born around the world using IVF.
Not content to stop there, however, science is pushing it to the next level. Scientists are expected to have the ability to create babies from human skin cells within the next two decades in a process known as in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG. So far, it has only been used in mice, but it is believed to be just a matter of time before it can be used for human reproduction.
In a feat of bioengineering, scientists take adult skin cells and then essentially reprogram them to turn them into embryonic stem cells that can be grown into all manner of cells. Signaling factors like those that happen in nature then guide the stem cells to become sperm or eggs.
A group of scientists outlined serious reservations about the consequences of such technology, writing in the Science Translational Medicine journal: “I.V.G. may raise the specter of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life.” That’s putting it mildly!
There are a lot of potential uses for IVG, ranging from helping infertile women create eggs using their own skin cells to allowing for two men to create a baby related to both of them biologically. The researchers say that cells from women could be used to produce sperm, but that sperm would only be able to produce female babies because they lack a Y chromosome.
It gets worse. One stem cell researcher points out the possibility of a man producing the sperm as well as the eggs, essentially cloning himself, while others have said that people could try to create a baby with someone else’s skin cells – which are easily obtainable as humans shed a lot of skin each day – without their permission or knowledge. They could even pick up some of a celebrity’s skin cells from a hotel bathroom or bed, for example, to create a child with them!
Numerous ethical concerns
Not surprisingly, the idea does not sit well with a lot of people. New York University Bioethicist Arthur Caplan said there is a “yuck factor” to the situation, although he pointed out that people once felt that way about blood transfusions, too.
Bioethicist David Lemberg said, “Attempting to apply what we’ve learned to create a human zygote is dangerous, because we have no idea what we’re doing, we have no idea what the outcomes are going to be.”
This technology would be better than IVF in the sense that women do not need to be subjected to high doses of fertility drugs in order to retrieve their eggs, but the ethical issues are even greater. One of the big problems with IVF is that it creates extra embryos that often end up discarded or frozen indefinitely, but IVG is another beast entirely.
The bottom line is that interfering with nature never works out well. If we look at all the destruction to life and the environment that has been caused by genetically modifying crops, for example, it’s hard to imagine why anyone thinks creating babies from skin cells is a good idea.