Orphans by Design

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By Eric Cohen

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“Orphan” is one of those words that seems old-fashioned to modern ears — a word that evokes abject poverty in a Dickens novel. But in the years ahead, our reproductive technologies may lead us down a new, terrible path of creating orphans by design. In this case, the problem is not the tragic death of parents but the deliberate creation of children without living biological mothers or fathers — as if such bodily origins do not much matter, as if nurturing were the only dimension of parenthood that still has any meaning.

Over the past few years, a cadre of leading scientists has been working on “gamete harvesting” and “gamete engineering,” techniques that may be moving soon from the laboratory to the clinic. The first technique involves harvesting eggs from aborted fetuses and fertilizing them with sperm in the laboratory. The dead fetus, in other words, is the child’s biological mother. The second technique involves destroying human embryos, deriving embryonic stem cells, and turning those stem cells into sperm or eggs. The dead embryo, in other words, is the child’s biological mother or father. By these methods, we would produce children sprung from the dead, or children whose genetic parents were never allowed to be born, or children who resemble those who never had human faces.

Remarkably, it seems that even stem cells derived from male embryos can produce eggs, and in time stem cells from female embryos may be coaxed to produce sperm. In the age of embryo cloning, there is no reason the embryonic clone of a man cannot be used to provide eggs with a male genome or the embryonic clone of a woman used to produce sperm with a female genome. By this route, men and women are rapidly becoming interchangeable even when it comes to making babies. Armed with a growing mastery over modern biology, we make ourselves, in a sense, post-biological beings. We move beyond male and female.

Dr. Tal Biron-Shental, the lead researcher involved in harvesting eggs from aborted fetuses, offered this all-too-characteristic ethical reflection on her work: “I’m fully aware of the controversy about this — but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable.” Apparently, this is all the justification she needs. And to read the technical descriptions of this research — so cold, so clinical, so inhuman — is to understand how the scientist’s conscience atrophies. Take this abstract, from the June 2005 meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology: “Because embryoid bodies sustain blood development, we reasoned that they might also support primordial germ cell formation. Although there is a lack of markers that can suitably distinguish between ES cells and PGCs, retinoic acid acts to rapidly differentiate ES cells while stimulating proliferation of PGCs.” In other words, it may be possible to destroy embryos and harvest usable eggs and sperm from their tiny cellular cadavers.

As with any technique of assisted reproduction, the public demand for this research is driven primarily by the terrible pain of infertility and the powerful desire to have a child of one’s own. Lineage is the motive, even if it is lineage that is ultimately betrayed. But why, we must ask, would anyone use these novel techniques in particular? And how are gamete harvesting and gamete engineering different from the modern-day sperm bank or egg market? From artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization (IVF)?

Consider the technique of gamete harvesting. One reason to take eggs from aborted fetuses is that they are easier to get. The dead fetus can no longer be inconvenienced, and the egg-seekers need not trouble to request consent from the fetal “donor.” At present, individuals or couples who cannot produce eggs of their own need to find women who are willing to donate their extra eggs after undergoing fertility treatment or women who are willing to undergo super-ovulation and extraction simply to be egg-donors or egg-sellers.


Finding such women is not easy, since even those women undergoing IVF for themselves have powerful reasons not to donate their extra eggs: If having one’s own biologically related child is so important that women will undergo the ordeal of IVF, then giving away one’s eggs is an affront to the longing that led one to the fertility clinic in the first place. It means leaving one’s progeny in the hands of another. And while the procedure to harvest eggs is not high-risk, the intervention is also not trivial. As a result, the demand for donor eggs outstrips the supply. Using fetal eggs offers a way to bring supply and demand into balance.

For those infertile couples who are interested in keeping reproduction “within the marriage,” so to speak, using eggs from aborted fetuses might have an additional appeal, for there is no living female rival with a claim to motherhood. The resulting child is the progeny of the husband plus “X”: the husband plus the unknowable, the husband and the slain. It produces a child who is biologically motherless—a partial orphan—from the moment of conception.

One need not downplay the great humanity of adoption to wonder about the wisdom of creating children who need to be adopted by the very mothers who carry them to term. This is what artificial conception with donor gametes has always required. And now, carried to gamete harvesting, the dilemma grows even starker.

Even for the child conceived, say, in an anonymous romance, it is still possible to hunt backward to one’s origins, to seek one’s human beginning in time, to search for some link to those who came before. This is also true for the child of an anonymous sperm or egg donor: One’s origins — biologically and genetically — are still the seed of a living or once-living person, with a face we might look upon in real life or in pictures, with a lineage and history of his or her own. The child can still seek out the person he resembles in the flesh, even if the search comes up empty or is stymied. But with the eggs of an aborted fetus, the hunt for one’s origins leads the child back to a void — indeed, to a slain organism never allowed to flourish, never known in person, never mourned in death. It leads back to the machinations of the scientist, making life from scratch.


What about the technique of gamete engineering — the production of sperm or eggs using stem cells from dead embryos, including cloned embryos whose genomes we control? The only compelling reason to use this technology — rather than donor sperm or donor eggs taken from consenting adults — is to create sperm or eggs with the genes of a particular person who could not produce sperm or eggs otherwise: that is, sperm from an infertile man; eggs from an infertile women; eggs from a fertile man; sperm from a fertile woman.

Driven by the desire to have a child of their own, yet faced with the husband’s inability to produce sperm, a married couple might embrace this novel method: clone the husband, destroy the embryo that possesses his genome, harvest embryonic stem cells from that embryo, and turn the stem cells into sperm that bear the genetic imprint of the husband himself. Yet while the sperm carries his genetic information, it is not his sperm. And while such an act is driven by the parental longing for a biologically related child, it requires an act of destruction — taking the life of one’s clone in order to create a child of one’s own. Paternal passion leads to paternal betrayal. The hunger for life leads to an act that denies life, treating embryos simply as objects of manufacture and the young clone simply as a reproductive tool.

Even more radically, this technique might appeal to gay couples seeking children who are, in a sense, the fruit of their union. A gay female couple, for example, could one day clone one partner, destroy the cloned embryo, harvest its stem cells, turn those stem cells into sperm, and use the sperm to fertilize the other female partner. The movement for gay marriage finds an ally in emerging reproductive technologies that might make a novel form of homosexual parenthood possible. The limitations imposed by our maleness or femaleness are transcended by this act of biotechnological liberation. The unity-in-distinctness of fatherhood and motherhood will be further lost in a culture that thinks more about fulfilling desires and getting results than about the deep human meaning of our desires and our actions.

Of course, gamete harvesting and gamete engineering will not only be used by those seeking children. These techniques will also open up new avenues of embryo research and destruction on a mass scale. At present, the greatest practical barrier to creating embryos solely for research purposes — whether by cloning or IVF — is the difficulty of procuring eggs. But if scientists can manufacture an inexhaustible source of human eggs, then the embryo-research industry will advance in leaps and bounds. And as the last remaining connection with a living human progenitor — a consenting egg donor — is lost, whatever moral gravity, restraint, or conscience that still exists among researchers will likely erode. We will produce embryos industrially, and in doing so we will further obscure the human character of what we do (and destroy) in the name of progress.


While the moral hazards of gamete engineering and embryo research are distinct—the first violates the dignity of human procreation itself, the second violates the dignity of nascent human life — these practices are bound together in the instrumental view of human origins that makes them both possible. Like many tragic tales, the choices and actions that decide our fate are understandable, compelling, almost irresistible. Because the desire for a child of one’s own — flesh of one’s flesh — is so fundamental to being human, the infertile rightly seek some remedy. And when God does not answer their cries, the infertile understandably look to technique instead.

But because human procreation — the springing forth of new life from the union of mother and father — rightly commands our reverence and respect, we ought to resist these novel efforts to transcend this defining part of our nature. We ought to, but apparently we cannot. And so we are only a few steps away — gamete engineering today, artificial wombs tomorrow — from manufacturing children without parents from conception to birth.

In its 2004 report Reproduction and Responsibility, the President’s Council on Bioethics called for legislation banning the use of eggs or sperm harvested from aborted fetuses or destroyed embryos. So far, Congress has done nothing, even as the research proceeds rapidly ahead. But more deeply, the council sought to recover our understanding of what human procreation really is and really means. As the report put it:

At the very center of the picture of human procreation is the newborn child emerging from his or her mother’s womb. Even as the child arrives, it is a still-developing new life, derived from the union of “seeds” contributed by the two adults who were and are the child’s mother and (biological) father and whose child the newborn baby now becomes. Newly visible to the world after nine months of hidden growth, the child arrives not as “anyone” but as a “someone,” with a defined and distinctive (beginning) identity — human, familial, individual, male or female. Part of any child’s identity as this child lies in its special relationship to two particular human “someones” from whom the child descends. All of the child’s being and identity it owes to a continuous developmental process that began with union of egg and sperm and that continued through an unbroken sequence of embryonic and fetal stages enacted within the womb of the mother. Though father and mother are equal contributors of seed, the mother alone brings the child to birth: its developing life absolutely depends on the protection and silent nurturing of her body, its emerging life depends absolutely on her labor.

Only by recovering this understanding of the body, of motherhood and fatherhood — of children as gifts welcomed into the world rather than made by human hands — will we set the limits we now desperately need. And only by recognizing the central place of bodily origins in shaping human identity can we prevent yet another step toward dehumanization in the name of serving genuine human desires. The existence of orphans is a tragedy that adoptive parents can often redeem. The mass production of orphans is an abomination that would further corrupt our understanding of human dignity.

–Eric Cohen is editor of EPPC’s journal The New Atlantis and a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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