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Designer babies, no male required?

LONDON (BP)–In a development that one theologian is calling “Frankensteinian,” scientists in England said Tuesday they had made sperm from embryonic stem cells — creating the possibility that a baby could be created someday without a male being involved at any point.

The announcement from researchers at Newcastle University was described in the journal Stem Cells and Development, although it nearly immediately had its doubters among the science community, some of whom said the English researchers had not made functional sperm but instead only cells with some of the qualities of sperm. In fact, the online journal Nature called the cells “sperm-like.”

Karim Nayernia, a stem cell biologist at the school, acknowledged that the sperm aren’t a mirror image of a normal sperm, but he stood by his work.

“They have heads, they have tails and they move,” he was quoted as saying in the Telegraph newspaper. “The shape is not quite normal nor the movement, but they contain the proteins for egg activation.”

If perfected, the technique could be used within 10 years for fertility treatments, scientists said.

The development could create a triple-ethical whammy by involving not only 1) the destruction of a human embryo but also 2) cloning and 3) the jettisoning of males from the reproductive process. For instance, a lesbian couple could have a baby that is biologically related to both of them, with one of them supplying the egg and the other one having a sperm created from a cloned embryo. It could also create the scenario whereby a single woman has a baby, with both the egg and sperm biologically hers.

Cloning presumably was not used during the Newcastle University process, but it would have to be used for fertility treatments if a biologically matching sperm is desired. But even if the method is used for treating an infertile husband and wife, it should be rejected as unethical, said Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Moore is the author of the new book, “Adopted for Life,” which spotlights adoption and infertility. He and his wife battled infertility and adopted two boys from Russia.

“Our first response should be to recognize why there’s such a market for Frankensteinian reproductive technologies. It’s because of the real and genuine loss and desperation that infertility creates,” Moore told Baptist Press. “Our churches should minister to infertile couples by preaching and teaching about this issue, grieving with families experiencing the loss of an empty womb. And we should provide an alternative to the often ethically bankrupt and financially expensive technologies that promise a child at almost any cost.

“The first step to this is congregations that are empathetic and prayerful for the infertile. The second step is to promote a children-affirming counter-culture, including an adoption culture.”

It is critical, Moore said, for Christians to see how “children are increasingly viewed as things to be made” instead of, as Scripture teaches, “gifts to be received, children to be begotten.”

“There are appropriate technologies that seek to correct medical problems at the root of infertility,” he said. “We should support these gladly. There are other technologies, however, that seek to bypass the one-flesh union in order to ‘create’ a child. We should be the ones pointing out the ways such technologies tend to dehumanize persons and destabilize the natural order, while picturing a better way.”

Moore and C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the field of ethics is having a tough time keeping up with technology.

Nayernia, the lead scientist, said his team’s intention was not to help create “designer babies” but to show that embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell in the body, Time.com reported.

“The general public may be facing ‘stem cell fatigue,'” said Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “That is, there are so many discoveries coming so quickly that the average person has quit paying attention. Meanwhile, researchers are pushing the scientific envelope and ethicists are playing catch-up. The situation does not favor the reflective process of ethical consideration and the careful development of public policy.

“We must,” he added, “remain vigilant and engaged if we are to speak meaningfully into the public policy arena. And we must find better ways of keeping the conversation going among the various stakeholders. Scientists owe it to the public to contribute to a long national, even international, dialogue before they overstep ethical boundaries.”

Fertility debate aside, the procedure has problems from the get-go simply because it involved embryos, Mitchell said.

“Human embryos are being destroyed for ‘proof of concept.’ That is, just to see if it can be done,” he said. “The sacrifice of living members of our species on the altar of theoretical science is not something we should countenance. It is pre-modern barbarism dressed in white lab coats.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For a Q&A about stem cell research click here.

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  • Michael Foust