May 30, 2024

Synthetic gametes could enable homosexuals to have children

The sooner the better, contends an American bioethicist.

With stem cell technology constantly advancing, the dream of artificial (or synthetic) gametes comes ever closer. Last September Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, hosted a conference on “Artificial Gametes: Science and Ethics” (no papers available at the moment).

The creation of artificial gametes would represent the triumph of technology over the limitations of natural reproduction. Now that it seems feasible to coax adult cells into reverting to a pluripotent state, women could make sperm and men could make eggs. Eventually it might be possible to make bespoke gametes from any tissue samples.

The latest contribution to this simmering debate is a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Timothy F Murphy, of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. He argues that artificial gametes are ideally suited for gay and lesbian couples. If they existed, one of the principal arguments against homosexual parenting disappears: that the children are not related to at least one of their parents. “Synthetic gametes do raise questions of ethics in regard to parenthood for gay men and lesbians,” he writes, “but these are largely questions of access and equity, not questions of parental fitness and/or child welfare.”

Of course, it is not “natural” to reproduce this way, but Dr Murphy cites the authority of a 2004 article in Science by British utilitarian bioethicist John Harris and Italian stem cell scientist Giuseppe Testa which contends that “there is no a priori reason to prefer the natural, for the natural per se is morally neutral. The whole practice of medicine is a comprehensive attempt to frustrate the course of nature.”

Dr Murphy’s reasoning makes this future seem all but inevitable:

If insurance companies in the USA cover infertility treatments for straight couples, is there any morally compelling reason they should not extend the same benefits to opposite-sex couples, some of whom will be in lawful marriages? Given the historical arc of homosexuality in bioethics, the field may eventually move to embrace these kinds of questions fully, after the novelty of synthetic gametes wears off, and bioethics may yet embrace homosexual men and women as the presumptive equals of everyone else in regard to fitness as parents. The sooner, the better.

Michael Cook
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