In the last year I joined the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). One fringe benefit is that I get a subscription to Fertility and Sterility, which is their bi-weekly journal. I’ve written about this journal before, and as I said then, the vast majority of it is beyond my comprehension. The primary audience is medical/scientific.
Anyway, the latest issue has a “Editor’s Corner” piece by a very well-known ART physician who just turned 100–Dr. Howard Jones, Jr. It’s called “Seven roads traveled well and seven to be traveled more” and it is a look back on the last 30 years of progress in IVF as well as a look forward at where we will be/should be/are going. (I’m sorry that there doesn’t seem to be a way to link to this for folks.) The fifth and sixth roads to be traveled caught my attention and I thought I’d mention them here.
Dr. Jones says “[t]h fifth road seeks to improve not the quantity but the quality of our IVF offspring.” It’s hardly surprising that the emphasis on “quality” summons up visions of eugenics–a topic discussed here not so very long ago.
But it turns out that what Dr. Jones has in mind is something that, for me, is not easily typed as eugenics. Would we, for example, screen out genetic material that carries with it known increased risks of breast or ovarian cancer in favor of genetic material from the same person that does not carry with it the increased risk? That is improving the quality of the offspring, but it is not the sort of eugenics that disturbs me.
Dr. Jones also goes on to discuss the possibility of prior-to-pregnancy screening–something else that came up here a while ago. Here, too, you could see the specter of selective breeding and eugenics, or you could see a reasonable effort to take into account known risks of genetic defects. (I’ve written about this a bit before, too.)
Then there is the sixth road. That’s developing viable gametes from somatic cells. That means allowing gametes to be created from our own ordinary cells. At least part of the point here (at least as Dr. Jones states it) would be to eliminate the need for third-party gametes. For any different sex couple, each person could certainly provide somatic cells and, if you could use those to make gametes, then you’d have what you need to move forward.
I’m no expert, but I think this would theoretically work for same-sex couples, too. Once you can create gametes and proceed via IVF, I’m not sure you need to make the sperm/egg distinction. (As far as I can see, it would not work for a person who wanted to be a single parent, and thus, Dr. Jones might overstate the case when he says there’d be no need for third-party gametes.)
To be clear, there’s no time frame here. I don’t think we’re close or anything. But it’s an intriguing possibility. And I wonder, for those who are committed to DNA as the means of defining parenthood, what it might mean. It seems to me it resolves all those questions about what the child knows about genetic lineage and all that, doesn’t it?