Men still relevant, say bioethicists

No longer unemployedLast week British scientists announced that they had created sperm cells from embryonic stem cells for the first time. This provoked a flurry of speculation about the future of men in a world where women can create their own sperm.

But, according to bioethicists writing in the journal Cell Stem Cell, this is probably jumping the gun. In an article published a bit earlier than this latest development, they point out that human gametes derived from embryonic stem cells or from induced pluripotent stem cells will probably not be developed for another decade. Several more years will be needed before clinical applications are available.

Still, they are enthusiastic about the potential benefits which lie ahead – which is not surprising, really, because two of the six authors are boosters of radical human enhancement -- John Harris, of the University of Manchester, and Julian Savulescu, of Oxford. They suggest that society should begin thinking now about the potential social consequences.

These do not include reproduction for same-sex couples, in their opinion. There are “significant, if not insurmountable scientific barriers” to this. It is virtually impossible to derive eggs for reproduction from XY (chromosomally male) cells and sperm from XX (chromosomally female) cells.

Nonetheless, derived gametes will be very useful in research, because it might be possible to produce a virtually unlimited number of eggs for experiments. It would no longer be necessary to buy eggs. It would also make research into infertility and genetics easier. More controversially, it will be possible to alter the genetic make-up of children – to make them more intelligent or better athletes, and so on.

So even if homosexual reproduction is out, there are a plethera of ethically controversial scenarios, especially the creation and destruction of embryos for research and human enhancement. In view of this, the authors call for the “highest ethical standards” and appropriate oversight. And, they say, the bedrock ethical principle is that there must be no attempt to restrict scientific inquiry “solely because there are divergent moral views”. ~ Cell Stem Cell, July 2

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