Let’s call him B.D., because that’s what his wife does on her infertility blog, Shooting Blanks. Several years ago, the 36-year-old learned he was azoospermatic. It means his body makes no sperm at all.
During a recent phone interview, I could hear his wife in the background. She is 35 and facing what she describes as a terrifying countdown toward a life with no children. “Being childless can’t be my destiny, it just can’t be,” she wrote on her blog.
The technology could carry socially disruptive consequences. Women might have children regardless of age. Just grab some skin and poof, young eggs. And if eggs and sperm can be produced in the lab, why not also make embryos by the dozens and test them to pick those with the least disease risk or the best chance of a high IQ? Henry Greely, a member of Stanford University’s law faculty and one of the most influential bioethical thinkers in the U.S., finds that scenario likely. Last year, in a book titled The End of Sex, he predicted half of couples would stop reproducing naturally by 2040, instead relying on synthetic reproduction using skin or blood as a starting point.
Others say it’s possible, even probable, that lab-made gametes could be genetically engineered to remove disease risks. And still more speculative possibilities are on the horizon. For instance, scientists believe it will be possible to make eggs from a man’s skin cell and sperm from a woman’s skin cell, though the latter would be more difficult because women lack Y chromosomes. This process, termed “sex reversal,” in theory could allow reproduction between two people of the same sex. And then there is what Greely terms the “uni-parent—his own sperm, his own egg, his own ‘unibaby.’” Such bizarre possibilities have dominated news coverage of recent advances. The episode of All Things Considered that B.D. heard on the radio asked whether it would be possible to steal a hair from George Clooney’s head and create a clandestine Hollywood sperm bank.
In that case, genetic sequencing could be used to inspect each embryo, allowing people to choose the “best” ones—those with desirable genes or without undesirable ones, like those associated with a risk of schizophrenia. This is the scenario predicted by Greely, the legal scholar, who argues that parents would choose artificial reproduction over sexual reproduction if they had enough to gain. “If you have 1,000 eggs, then you can make choices,” Kagimoto says.Read More