21 August 2023
In 2016, Japanese researchers generated functional male and female mouse germ cells for the first time. These cells were created by reprogramming the skin cells of mice first into pluripotent stem cells and then into oocytes or eggs.
Through in vitro fertilisation (IVF), 26 new mice were born from these eggs. Some of these mice later gave birth to mouse pups themselves.
In the same year, another group of scientists in China created spermatid-like cells from embryonic stem cells and primordial germ cells which succeeded in producing viable and fertile offspring.
The creation of ‘synthetic’ or ‘artificial’ gametes has had a mixed reception from the scientific community. While some scientists have welcomed this development because of the doors it might open for further research, others are less sanguine and more cautious.
Before we proceed further, some clarifications must be made regarding the terminology used by the scientific community regarding this specific research.
Early publications used the term ‘synthetic’ gametes to describe oocytes or sperm created by this technique. However, as the Nuffield paper published in 2015 is right to point out, such terminology may be misleading because ‘the gametes in question are not created de novo from inorganic matter, but by manipulating already existing cells.’
For this reason, the term ‘synthetic gametes’ has now been largely abandoned.
What is the motivation for creating artificial gametes? The Nuffield paper helpfully suggests the following reasons:
Firstly, generating further knowledge, especially with a view to the development of stem cell medicine, but also for understanding and learning to counter the effects of infertility. Secondly, this research has been motivated by the aim of eventually generating gametes for use in reproduction.
Needless to say, the creation of artificial gametes for research and infertility treatment has raised a number of important ethical and legal issues which must not be ignored. In what follows, I will briefly discuss some of the more significant ethical problems associated with this development from the standpoint of Christian ethics.
Destruction of Human Embryos
The first ethical issue has to do with the fact that the creation of artificial gametes would inevitably result in the destruction of the embryos they are used to generate.
Annelien Bredenood and Insoo Hyun point out that the oocytes created from stem cells in the laboratory will have to undergo tests using natural sperm. The procedure must be repeated several times before success is achieved, and in the process many embryos will be destroyed.
In Christian ethics, the destruction of the human embryo is unacceptable because it is nothing but the deliberate taking of human life. Christians believe that at the point of conception the embryo is a human being made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore worthy of respect and protection.
This should not be regarded as an idiosyncratic view that is inspired by religious commitments but which has no basis in science. It is a view that is shared by some scientists.
For example, in her article entitled ‘When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective’, Maureen L. Condic, the Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, writes: ‘Based on the scientific description of fertilization, fusion of sperm and egg in the “moment of conception” generates a new human being.’
Christian ethics maintain that it is wrong to destroy the human embryo even in the context of scientific research which has the potential to benefit society or some of its members. This is because the human being must never be treated merely as a means to an end.
This brings us to the second ethical problem related to artificial gametes, especially when they are used to generate human embryos for research. If the human embryo created by the procedure is indeed a human being worthy of dignity and respect, it should never be used for research because that would tantamount to its instrumentalization and commodification.
Scientists such as Andrew Lippman (MIT) and Saul Newman (Oxford) have tried to circumvent this objection by insisting that embryos created from artificial gametes have a different moral status from ‘natural’ embryos. Lippman and Newman described them as ‘assemblages’ to distinguish them from other embryos and to argue that they have a lower moral status.
This recalls the distinction made between pre-embryos (which do not have the full moral status of human beings) and embryos (which do) that pervades the literature on embryonic stem cell research.
But there can be no philosophical or scientific basis whatsoever for making such distinctions.
If, as Christian theology and ethics require, the human embryo is a human being worthy of respect and protection, it should never be used, destroyed and discarded in the name of scientific advancement.
To do so would be simply immoral.
The creation of artificial gametes has been welcomed by some scientists and doctors because of its potential use in fertility treatments. However, many scientists have underscored the potential risks associated with creating embryos via artificial gametes.
Emily Jackson speaks for many doctors involved in Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) when she states that the avoidance of harm is ‘as uncontentious as basing the decision not to prescribe a particular medicine to pregnant women upon evidence of its propensity to cause birth defects.’
Zubin Master, a bioethicist at the Mayo Clinic, warns of the high possibility that artificial gametes may transmit serious genetic abnormalities to the embryos they produce. Scientists acknowledge that the development of natural gametes is a complex progress that is not fully understood. The creation of artificial gametes may truncate that process with potentially serious consequences.
In addition, the genetic abnormalities in the artificial gametes may be passed down to subsequent generations. These genetic defects may be irreversible and may thus adversely affect the gene pool.
It is difficult if not impossible to comprehensively evaluate the risks associated with the use of artificial gametes in ART. This is because there are bound to be ‘unknown unknowns’ – risks that are lurking about which we cannot possibility anticipate at this juncture of the research and on the basis of current knowledge.
Artificial Gametes and Parentage
Besides the important ethical issues such as the commodification and destruction of human embryos and the complex question of safety, artificial gametes may bring about new and profound confusion and complications on parentage and the ethical problems associated with them.
Artificial gametes would enable same-sex couples to have their own genetic children. For example, in the case of a male same-sex couple, oocytes can be obtained from the somatic (say, skin) cells of one of the partners, which could be fertilised by the sperm of the other.
Christians who maintain that the Bible prohibits homosexual intercourse would object to the use of artificial gametes by same-sex couples to have children because it violates the family structure that God has ordained.
Artificial gametes could also enable an individual to have a child without the involvement of a third party. For example, a woman could create sperms from her own somatic cells to fertilise her natural eggs to produce an offspring. In this case, the woman would be both the ‘father’ and mother of the offspring.
Women who have undergone menopause would also be able to produce eggs through this technique from her somatic cells. This means that once the technique of producing artificial gametes is improved and all the attendant risks significantly reduced, the need for women to freeze their eggs in other to delay motherhood would become superfluous.
Another way in which artificial gametes can introduce complications to parentage is that it can create a situation where the child has multiple genetic parents. The Nuffield paper offers this scenario, which involves donated gametes:
For example, suppose two people provide gametes from which an embryo is derived, in order to generate ESCs [embryonic stem cells]. These ESCs are differentiated into eggs, which are fertilised with sperm derived from ESCs obtained from a different embryo. If the sperm and eggs obtained through this process are fertilised, the offspring will be genetically related to four adult ‘parents’, and clearly, by continuing the cycle, many more contributors would be able to participate. Those who fear the effects of family confusion on offspring, may regard this as a worrying prospect.
These complications that artificial gametes may introduce to parentage all have serious moral as well as legal implications.
While the creation of artificial gametes presents exciting possibilities for research in stem cells and human gametes and in countering the effects of infertility, there are serious ethical problems associated with it.
The Christian ethicist must take into serious consideration all these important and complex problems. But his fundamental objection is that such research would result in the creation, use and destruction of human embryos.