Fertility is one of several equality battlegrounds. Same-sex couples don’t have equality when it comes to having babies. This time it isn’t just the law that needs changed but also biology before true equality can be claimed. Surprisingly perhaps, it is possible and almost certainly will happen. It will just take time.
In one scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, one of the men demanded the right to have babies. Someone pointed out that he didn’t have a womb, so he accused them of oppression. He demanded the right to have babies, even if he couldn’t. Life imitates art. In real life, same-sex couples now are allowed to have babies; the debate has moved on to rights and the allocation of responsibility for paying for it if they want to do it via fertility treatment rather than adoption. But same-sex couples still can’t have babies where both partners each contribute half the genes.
Conventional fertility treatment using donor sperm already enables female couples to have kids. Men can make use of surrogate mothers. However, with conventional treatments, only one of the couple gets to be a genetic parent, a sperm or ovum donor being the other. There is far more to defining a person than their genes, but they do play an important role in determining our gender, nature and appearance.
Technology will one day be able to let both partners in a same-sex couple contribute genes to their new baby. The general principle is easy enough to state. For women-only couples, use high-tech IVF to add the genes of one parent to an ovum from the other. For male only couples, just take the genes from each parent and put them in a donor egg that has had the genes removed from its nucleus.
That still doesn’t quite deliver equality though. The female couples can’t make baby boys, because neither of them has a Y chromosome. The male couples can’t contribute the mitochondrial DNA or any of the rest of an ovum, so some of the baby still isn’t theirs. So more progress is still needed.
Reproductive equality will need the technology to take a cell from a man and make it into an ovum. There has already been some progress making eggs from stem cells in mice. e.g:
so making them work properly and extending it to work in humans sounds feasible. Indeed, it sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect to hear about from stem cell research in the next decade.
Making Y chromosomes is harder. Some Y chromosome genes don’t exist in women, so Y chromosomes would have to come from donor men or else be assembled from scratch We are very far from the level of genetic assembly needed to manufacture a human Y chromosome from scratch and even if we could, there still remains the decision over which genes to use. Picking from a library of Y chromosomes from male donors would be very much easier, and the rest of the chromosomes could come from the female couple.
So, men could get reproductive equality by using one of their own cells to make an ovum and adding their partner’s genes before implanting in a surrogate mother or artificial womb. Women can make baby girls but will have to compromise if they want a baby boy. They could self-source almost all the genes, but would have to import the Y chromosome. Not quite full equality, but close.
Eventually though, I think equality comes not by same-sex couples catching up with different-sex couples on old-fashioned biology, but by moving to synthetic biology. The far future of reproduction is that we will be able to design our offspring, look up which genes and other cellular components are needed, assemble the bits and incubate according to the required regime.
That won’t be easy, so it will be a long time off. You can’t directly calculate genotype from phenotype, but over time we can make databases of what leads to what. So it will realistically be several decades before we get there. Arguing over ethics and rights will probably take place in parallel so won’t necessarily slow development down much. So will development of artificial wombs.
The result is that any couple of any gender combination – and I’ve argued recently that we will get new genders in the future too – will be able to get their genes listed, combine them in any combination with those from their partners, friends, family and strangers and design any novel ones where nature doesn’t provide. Then they can simulate the potential combinations, tweak them to remove vulnerabilities or enhance qualities, eventually decide which ones they want to have as their kids, and essentially get them made to order. The gender of the parents shouldn’t make it any more or less difficult. Reproduction will then be a level playing field for same and different sex couples.