To the Logical Conclusion?

I write about this story, not because I think we are really at the edge of this level of science (I don’t believe that we are) but because it gives me pause.    And I do think it is probably only a matter of time before what is discussed here is possible.

The idea is pretty simple:

In the future, it could even be possible for stem cells from a male to be used to produce an egg, allowing an infant to have two biological fathers

First off I have to wonder, purely on a technical level, if there is a reason this would work for men and not women.  I mean, if a man’s stem cells could be manipulated to produce and egg, couldn’t a woman’s stem cells be manipulated to produce sperm?  Perhaps not since the idea seems to me that men do have an X chromosome–which is where you’re getting the material for an egg—while women do not have a Y chromosome.   But really, I digress.  This isn’t my point.

I don’t have a general objection to all genetic engineering.  I see that it is rife with ethical issues.  I’m not saying I’d allow it all.  But if a person had a gene for a heritable and fatal disease and you could correct it at a genetic level I wouldn’t say that was necessarily bad.   (Yes, I see slippery slopes.   Gattica–which I’ve never but always intended to–and so.)   I’m not terribly troubled when people doing IVF pick an embryo that is most likely to survive to term and is free of crippling genetic defects.  (Again, I see the slippery slope.  Can you pick the tallest one?   The one with dimples?   The girls?   The blondes?)

But there’s something else that bothers me about the tone of this article, and it really goes back to genetic essentialism.   The virtue of this technology is not that it allows you to create a super-race or a designer child.  The virtue is that it allows you to create a child that is genetically related to both men.   Now why is that a good thing?

I think there are two possible answers here, and they are closely intertwined.   On the one hand, you could say (and I know many do say) that it is just flat out better for parents to be genetically related to their children.  Perhaps this is because we are somehow naturally programmed to be better parents for genetically related children.   Perhaps this is just a natural law that stands on its own.   (Can you sense my skepticism?  No point in denying it and not a secret or a surprise.)

From that point of view I am curious about the responses to this technology.  Some do object to two men raising kids because they cannot both be genetic parents.  Does this technology do away with that objection?  Both genetic parents therefore it’s all fine.

Anyway, as I have said–or at least strongly intimated–I do not think genetic connection is an essential attribute of parenthood.  I do not think that genetic parents are necessarily better parents and I don’t think we should privilege genetic connection over other forms of adult/child connections.

But there is that other hand–remember?   Maybe it’s not so much that it is really better for parents to be genetically related–as in scientifically, measurably better–as it is that for some people that genetic connection feels really important.     Perhaps some people they do not feel like “real” parents unless they have that genetic connection.

You can see how tangled this is.   People feel it is important because you do see a lot in our culture (including the media) about how it really is important.   And if people believe it is important than perhaps that makes it real.   I mean, if I am convinced that I am a second-class parent because I do not have a genetic connection to my child, that might well shape my relationship with my child. BY the same token, if I’m convinced I’m the real thing because I do have that connection, this too could make a measurable difference.   So belief creates reality and reality shapes belief.   Perhaps there aren’t really two different things here.

Now to what bothers me.   Let’s assume the technology comes along.  It’s pretty easy for someone like me–someone who has no broad moral objection to the use of technology–to say “let people make their own choices.”    But I’m very wary of saying it.  The technology will be expensive.  (I’m prepared to bet on that.)  And it will be accessible to a small number of men at first.   Are those men–their families–“better”, because they are full genetic families.  I think the men who choose to use it must see it that way–otherwise why bother?   And what about the rest of us?

If there’s a two father family down the block where one man is genetically related and one man is not, are they somehow less legitimate?   I understand that  no one may mean to imply this, but I worry that the message is clear anyway.    (I’ve a similar, though really slightly different, concern when lesbian couples use and egg from one woman and then do IVF so the other can carry the pregnancy.)

I suppose what I’m really wrestling with here is the extent to which what seem like individual and personal choices have broader social consequences in structuring how people think about what makes a family.    I think we ought to be mindful, for instances, that there are adoptive families out there who are providing loving homes to kids who really need just that.  Are they second-best?

I wonder if there is a way to acknowledge that the genetic link is very important to some people without diminishing the families that don’t have it?   Without undermining the right to choose to create a family without that link?    I’m sure there is, but I think the uncritical endorsement of new technologies whose sole value is to enable creation of that link can be problematic.    Not saying we shouldn’t have the technologies.  Not saying people shouldn’t be free to choose to use them.  Just worrying and wondering.



8 responses to “To the Logical Conclusion?

  1. What was missing in you musings – will a child born from this method feel like they are a ‘freak of nature’, and even if they don’t, what will they face growing up, and into adulthood, by people they come into contact who feel this crosses the line. I recognise that some may take exception to my word choice – but to some, they will be seen that way.

    Just because something is possible, does not mean it doesn’t come with big ramifications, in this case, it may be the one created who suffers the most. Not everything that is possible, should be done, at least not without deep discussions, forethought, preparation and taking into account in this case, the one without a voice in the discussion.

    As to how to not make adoptive parents and/or adoptive families feel second best – you can’t change how another person feels, only they can do that, and if they feel their family is less than, that’s on them. The alternative is to shut down any discussions, and stop others from talking about their feelings about their lives and needs – this happened, and still happens in adoption. It also used to be (and still is) the way to shut down conversations about marriage equality for the LGBT community, and before, marriage equality to marry someone outside of your race.

    • Good points. And more food for thought.

      I think there’s a really interesting tension between the two points you make–one that I suspect pervades the area. You’re surely right to raise the question of whether children will feel like freaks, or different or stigmatized or however we want to capture that notion. How children feel about their origins is important. It’s also (pretty clearly, I think) socially determined. And it can change. So once I think many children with two moms or two dads–nevermind how–may well have felt weird. And of course, some still may. But for many it is the new normal. You can see many things that helped this happened–everything from kids books (Heather Has Two Mommies) to TV series (Modern Family, is it?) to PTA meetings and soccer games and so on. I suppose what this suggests to me is the fact that kids might feel weird (or freakish or whatever) is important to consider but perhaps not dispositive?

      And that’s sort of your second point–people will feel what they will feel and maybe we need to just note that and move along. I think I agree with you about the importance of not shutting down discussion. But perhaps mindfulness is in order–an awareness that characterizations can have real impact. But perhaps what people might feel isn’t the end all and be all–which goes back to the first point you made?

      • Been mulling on your reply Julie,

        Sure, kids can adjust and it becomes their norm. Books help, being around other kids like them, families being open about it for discussion, societies do adjust, eventually. All that is extremely helpful, but, and you knew there was a but coming. Society still has not fully adjusted to same race adoption (let alone transracial adoption), and that’s been mainstream since 1950 with around 90K adoptions each year in a population about half what it is now. Society doesn’t see it as the same or even normal 65 years later – society takes a long time to evolve – meanwhile kids don’t have the luxury of waiting till they do. Just like racism still exists, and parents teach their children how to be racist by example and words, the same applies to anything different, i.e., adoption, donor conceived. Some adopted children are still bullied by other children (and likely some adults), because they are adopted. It happens and sometimes is triggered by school projects focused on anything family, the family tree, the genetic where did you get xyz aspect, any of that is still part of society – despite the fact that we are 65 years in since adoption went mainstream. The impact of bullying can lead to tragic consequences for the child. That’s why I think how the children will fare must be the primary factor in any discussion of this nature.

        I don’t think the second point can smooth out the first point, because the first about the impact on the child and the second is about adults.

        • I think it’s two fold Tao, how the children will fare and how the adults will help the children fare. While the Adults cannot control everything in a child’s life and can’t fix everything they do have the potential to make things worse. By having these tough conversations adults it will help parents help their kids. Also by helping parents cope with their own scars left by infertility so it’s not carried into parenting makes a big difference in how they approach parenthood.

          Divorce and its impact on kids is a good example. It’s a difficult situation to begin with but a lot of parents make situations worse by not putting their children first.

        • I didn’t mean to suggest that the second point totally responds to the first, just that the two things are intertwined.

          You’re right about things like the persistence of discrimination and such like. And so you’re right, too, that this needs to be part of the discussion. But I think it cannot be the be all and the end all. Surely it was harder for kids in transracial families thirty years ago than it is today. Surely some kids suffered (and just as surely some kids thrived). I think we’re better off for having chosen that road. Perhaps this is partly because there are all sorts of hidden costs (to society, and perhaps to individual children) of NOT choosing that road. And while I think the impact on kids is a critical factor, I don’t think it necessarily outweighs all factors all the time.

          It seems kind of wimpy to conclude by calling for thoughtful reflection, and yet that’s really what I want to do. I don’t have an answer to the two-father technology question. It troubles me that I don’t have an answer and the new technology itself troubles me. Maybe that’s just what I should be–troubled.

      • lets imagine that couple of generations down the road reproductive technology and gene mixing is so commonplace, and infertility rates are so high, that its just a routine variation of normal. even then it would take a couple of additional generations for culturue to catch up. but even if it did, how many children have to go through all that angst during those years till we get to that point? and no, feeling llike a freak can be accomplished without any bullying whatsoever, just by lacking what is clearly essential and meaningful to everyone elsse.

    • I agree Tao. Though I’m all for advancements in fertility treatments I also believe it’s important to have conversations such as this one. These conversations need to be conducted in a way as you have where questions are asked rather than flat out opposing these methods of conception. There’s a difference between having a level headed conversation as you have presented and the ones certain individuals and groups have where they object to anything outside of natural conception.

  2. our technological capabilities tend to outpace are psychological, social, and therefore abilities to adapt to them.

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