Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Female sperm and male eggs: Good news for gay families?

Equality can't be engineered in a Petri dish.

In The Baby Formula, a recently released mock documentary, a lesbian couple decides that each will get pregnant with a baby related to both of them - they'll become the first women to conceive with "female sperm" created from each other's stem cells. Comedy and complications ensue. The Canadian indie comedy has been shown at several film festivals, and is garnering attention from film critics (1, 2) and bioethicists (1, 2).

Outside fictional romantic comedies, no one has tried to make human babies this way. But scientists at Newcastle University have done it in mice. The same research team has produced primitive human sperm from male bone marrow, and is now trying to create sperm from women's bone marrow stem cells.

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At first glance, female sperm and male eggs might seem to offer an exciting option for gays and lesbians who want to be parents. But they're far from that. In fact, efforts to make babies with stem cell-derived gametes would turn GLBT families into guinea pigs for techno-enthusiast adventures. Here's why.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) has helped thousands of gays form families. But human reproduction using artificial gametes would be a biologically extreme enterprise, far more similar to reproductive cloning than to ordinary IVF. Gametes derived in laboratories from stem cells, like cloned embryos, have not been subjected to the evolutionary dynamics that would make them suitable for participating in reproduction.

While the psychological well-being of any children that resulted from stem cell-derived gametes wouldn't be an issue the way it is with reproductive cloning, the threats to their physical well-being would likely be just as daunting. As nearly all scientists agree, animal cloning experiments [PDF] demonstrate that trying to clone human beings would be far too dangerous. The overwhelming majority of attempts to clone dogs, cats and other mammals fail. Embryos and fetuses are miscarried; offspring are stillborn or die shortly after birth; survivors develop serious anomalies. Many animal cloning experts believe that no clones are fully healthy.

And there's broad consensus that the very investigations that would be needed to try to improve its safety would amount to unethical human experimentation. The same would be true of reproduction using male eggs or female sperm: It couldn't be tried without putting both child and mother at unacceptable risk.

The scientists working to derive gametes from stem cells are no doubt motivated mostly by scientific curiosity and a commitment to advancing biological knowledge. The makers of The Baby Formula were no doubt intrigued by a novel story line. The few voices actually advocating the use of artificial gametes in humans say they want gay families to have the same opportunities as straight ones.

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 aren't safe enough for straight people shouldn't be promoted to gays and lesbians.

Equality can't be engineered in a Petri dish. Instead of pursuing over-the-top-risky biology experiments on babies and parents, shouldn't we focus on working for equal access to existing means of family building? And while we're at it, let's push for legal protections for gay parents and children, and full social acceptance of GLBT families.

Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D., is Associate Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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