While gay families and their supporters await the California Supreme Court's ruling on the constitutionality of a voter-approved law banning same-sex marriage, a few researchers and pundits are proposing that same-sex procreation with bio-engineered gametes will undermine one of the key arguments of same-sex marriage opponents.
These technological enthusiasts are portraying a recent biological experiment with artificial gametes as a breakthrough that will one day enable gay and lesbian couples to have children who are genetically related to both of them. Some media reports have described the step toward "female sperm" as a portent of gay freedom. "Good news for lesbians," the lead of one story gushed.
Well, maybe not. The news accounts and enthusiasts haven't raised the question of whether equality can be engineered in a test tube or discrimination solved with a technical fix. Nor have they pointed out that procreation with artificial gametes would be a biologically extreme measure that would pose enormous risks to any resulting children. While speculation about using such constructs in humans typically includes the standard disclaimer - "assuming this is shown to be safe" - the far more likely "not safe" option has remained unexamined.
The recent discussion of female sperm was triggered by a report from scientists at the United Kingdom's University of Newcastle. The British researchers, who had previously coaxed bone marrow cells taken from men to develop into sperm precursor cells, announced that they had done the same with female embryonic stem cells and now plan to try repeating the trick with female bone marrow. As the scientists and various commentators hastened to point out, these techniques raise the possibility that sperm created from one woman's cells could be used to fertilize an egg from her partner.
In a previous study published in 2006, the Newcastle team worked with mice, and was able to produce offspring using female mouse sperm. But the results of that experiment are hardly comforting: The researchers got seven live births from 210 attempts. Though mice usually live for years, one of those seven mouse pups died soon after birth, and the other six exhibited "abnormal growth rates" and died within five months.
Female sperm and male eggs would not be just another form of in vitro fertilization. IVF uses evolved biological mechanisms to initiate reproduction in a different physical location: a Petri dish instead of a womb. Using artificial gametes for reproduction would be more like using cloning for reproduction, which routinely produces disastrous outcomes similar to the Newcastle scientists' mice. That's why there is now a wide consensus among nearly every knowledgeable researcher that trying to create human clones would be dangerous and highly unethical.
Like reproductive cloning, efforts to use female sperm or other artificial gametes would mean starting with biological materials that have not been produced by evolutionary dynamics to participate in reproduction. In human beings, this would be an extraordinarily high-risk gamble. As researchers and others have concluded in speculation about human reproductive cloning, the very investigations that would be required to try to improve the safety of female-sperm reproduction in human beings would amount to unethical human experimentation.
But some promoters of the female-sperm scenario aren't waiting even for lab results. A Bay Area patent analyst, Gregory Aharonian, is uninvolved with any scientific work, yet has filed a patent application on a variety of techniques to create artificial gametes. Acknowledging that this is, in part, a publicity move, Aharonian argues that mobilizing support for same-sex procreation using female sperm and male eggs would undermine the keystone argument against same-sex marriage.
What's going on here? Why are speculative and risky technologies being held out to lesbians and gay men as tantalizing prospects? Are reproductive methods that amount to dangerous experimentation on their children really a road to freedom for gay families? Or is the language of equality and empowerment being used to justify human experimentation that puts these children at great risk?
Anti-gay sentiment is not caused by the inability of same-sex couples to have biologically related children, but by fear and intolerance. The solutions to homophobia will not be found in test tubes and Petri dishes, but in challenging and changing our laws, policies and culture. Our resources are far better spent advocating for equal access to existing means of family building, legal protections for gay parents and children, and full social acceptance of diverse kinds of families.
Of course, any assisted reproduction techniques that are safe and ethical for heterosexuals should also be available for gays. But the obverse is also true: Reproductive methods that are not safe enough for straight people shouldn't be promoted to gays and lesbians. Gay families should not be made into guinea pigs for techno-enthusiasts interested in extreme forms of human experimentation.
Marcy Darnovsky is associate executive director at the Center for Genetics and Society (www.genetics-and-society.org) and a contributor to the blog Biopolitical Times (www.biopoliticaltimes.org).
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