February 28, 2024

We need to redefine parenthood, say bioethicists

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” This conversation from the Book of Genesis about infertility took place about 4,000 years ago, but the pain has not lessened with the centuries. Two recent articles in the Journal of Medical Ethics tackle this issue from different angles. But they concur on an important principle: “it is important not to reinforce the dogma that genetic parenthood is ‘the best kind of parenthood’”. People should be told that traditional concepts of motherhood and fatherhood are obsolete.

Heidi Mertes, of Ghent University, examines whether artificial gametes will be an adequate tool for infertile couples to create a child. Research on these is proceeding apace and it may be possible for a man to create egg cells and for a woman to create sperm. But Mertes is sceptical; they are unlikely to be safe or cost-effective for many years. Worse, it reinforces the traditional genetic view of “real” parenthood:

“Some people who are currently happy with the (safe and relatively cheap) solution of using donor sperm (eg, lesbian couples) will get the message that this is inferior to having their ‘own’ lab-created gametes. This is not only a wrong message to send but also creates a situation in which this new innovation not only meets demand but creates demand.”

In another article Anna Smajdor and Daniela Cutas discuss the possibility of creating artificial gametes from stolen genetic material. At the moment this is the stuff of science fiction, but a few cases of babies conceived with stolen sperm have come before the courts. Although conception took place without the man’s knowledge or consent, the courts still have concluded that he is still the child’s father and must therefore pay child support. They comment on this absurd situation:

“our existing legislative frameworks privilege genetic relationships over other considerations, in ways that can have long-term consequences for those who are found ‘guilty’ of genetic parenthood. It is this that makes the prospect of AGs and unwitting genetic parenthood a problem.”

In this sense, discussions of artificial gametes “could thus be a welcome catalyst for a reanalysis of genes, parenthood and legal obligations, leading ultimately to a long-overdue divorce between genetic and legal parenthood”.