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Arificial sperm: a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle?

Professor Karim Nayernia and his team at Newcastle University produced sperm cells from embryonic stem cells (here and here)
Italian newspapers ( here and here) (English ones were more restrained here) ran articles about this research claiming that  in the next future men will be not necessary in human reproduction because it will be possible to develop sperm cells from women’s somatic cells, like skin cells.  The fact that women may, sooner or later, be able to reproduce without men’s help did not shock me too much. Reproductive human cloning should allow us to do more or less the same thing: Dolly the sheep was born in 1997, so it’s almost 12 years that we have been aware of this. 

Still, it seems that a wave of panic swept through many men around the world and I read many comments of people who were quite upset, if not scared, about the news.
But this anxiety seems to be quite misplaced. Reading carefully, one learns that, first of all, the aim of the research is not to produce sperm cells from reprogrammed somatic cells for the sake of excluding men from reproduction. On the contrary, the intention is to understand causes of male infertility studying sperm cells maturation.
Also, the attempt to create sperm cells from XX (female) stem cells failed (they stopped at the early stage called spermatogonia), and just cells derived from XY stem cells developed into proper sperm ones. So it seems that, at least for now, the research brings us to the conclusion that XY cells are essential to reproduction, not the opposite.
Anyway, every time research like this are published, the arguments used to prove there  is something wrong with these experiments are the same. I will try to sum up just some of them explaining why they are unconvincing.

1)    Argument based on the assumption that we shouldn’t play God or usurp God’s prerogative as a creator.
To be consistent we have to admit that we play God’s part in procreation every time we use contraceptives, since we decide when to procreate, and timing should be a God’s prerogative too. Strangely not all of those who argue against new technologies in reproduction argue against contraceptives and, in general, planned pregnancies. 

2)    Argument based on the assumption that we cannot predict the consequences of these experiments, so maybe we will end up creating children affected by severe genetic anomalies.
This assumption seems to me to  support the idea that we should be careful before using new techniques, and keep on doing experiments. When in 1978 Louise Brown was born, the first baby conceived thanks to in vitro fertilization (IVF), horrible scenarios were predicted, but fortunately things went very well.

3) Moral superiority of “natural” births compared to “artificial” ones.
This is not the right place for discussing about the meaning of the words “natural” and “artificial”  and the supposed moral superiority  of nature (the best arguments can be read in J.S. Mill (Three essays on religion)  and D. Hume (Of suicide)). This argument is defeated by the claim that those are born by artificial methods like IVF believe it was better for them to be born, than to be not be born at all. Empirical data do not confirm the claim there is something inferior about being created artificially. 

4)    Argument based on the assumption that this research is immoral because of the waste of human embryos, since human life should be protected from its beginning (the zygote stage).
There is some agreement that at least up to the 14 day of development there are no good reasons to preserve at all costs human life (cfr. for example N. Ford, When did I begin) since the cells involved can become many different things including  a kind of cancer called teratoma, placenta, or an individual embryo as well as possibly twins. Also, we should weigh up benefits that can come out of these researches against the loss of embryos (and presumably these embryos would have been discarded anyway).

5)    The slippery slope argument: a bad use of this technology

a) Some people could  steal, let’s say, a strand of Brad Pitt’s hair and use it to create a genetic descendant of him against his own will. Of course every technology can be misused, but that is not a good reason for stopping research which can bring about desirable outcomes. When and if it will be technically possible to produce sperm cells from reprogrammed somatic cells, then it’s Parliament’s job to rule on how these technologies should be used. Until that moment we should let scientists do their job.

b)    Everybody (man or woman, gay or heterosexual, old or young, dead or alive)  could potentially  being used to create other human beings. This idea maybe sounds horrifying to many people, but it seems to me it is just an emotional reaction to something that reminds us of horror science fictions. It can be that these technologies will increase happiness of  many people who otherwise would be deprived of the chance to have children. So far, good and just people who have strong reasons and no alternatives have been the ones to use new technologies to reproduce. The traditional ways of reproducing are usually cheaper and more enjoyable, so if there is no good reason for using artificial sperm cells, why should or would we use them? For instance even if IVF is available, it is not the favorite way humans reproduce themselves, so there is no good reason for supposing artificial sperm cells will radically change our preferences.

At the end of the day, it seems there is no good  reason for trying to stop this kind of research, as it can help us to understand and cure causes of infertility. And  men can also be reassured that women will need them still for a long time and probably  will prefer them even when they will not be necessary anymore.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. This reminds me of the ruminations that were caused by the thought of human parthenogenisis. What would happen to diversity? What would happen to males? Diversity would suffer. This might make the human race increasingly susceptible to being wiped out by diseases, and it would reduce fun that comes from surprise or irritation.

    Males, would disappear. After all, no sperm would have a Y cromosome That might be problematic if there remains any work that requires upper body strength or quick decision-making. That is not to say there are no woman who have upper body strength or make quick decisions.

    Of course, the absence of men would solve all kinds of questions about what characteristics are sex-linked, if anyone is still interested.

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