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.