Virgin births and the future of conception

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First aired on Day 6

According to British biologist Aarathi Prasad, the idea of a virgin birth is not a miraculous phenomenon tied solely to Christian doctrine, and thanks to medical advances, it soon could be the stuff of our everyday lives. She's the author of Like a Virgin: Exploring the Frontiers of Conception. And in a recent interview on Day 6, she shared the history of scientific beliefs about pregnancy, and talked about where reproductive technology is headed. "Pretty much in every culture from Aztec to Greek to Hindu to Mongolian, everything, has a story or two of virgin birth," Prasad said.

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In-vitro fertilization (IVF) has been around since the 1970s, but as for the future of conception, Prasad said that we are heading into a time when a baby could be born using only the genetic material of one person, without the participation of the opposite sex. "Based on the technologies that reproductive scientists are working on today, this is definitely a possibility. A stem cell can divide to give you pretty much any cell, depending on the chemical environment it's put in," she said. She went on to add that stem cells can be encouraged to develop into sperm or eggs. "What's interesting is when you take female stem cells you can generate eggs, but when you take male bone-marrow stem cells, you not only can generate sperm cells but also generate eggs."

Prasad cited research done in Japan a few years ago, "where for the first time in history, a mammal, a mouse, was created, who had no father and two mothers. What they did was quite clever. They took one mature egg from one female, and they took one immature egg, and effectively they used that egg as sperm, and fertilized the other egg with it. And there you had a mouse. And the mouse was fertile."

Could this process work in human beings? "Theoretically if they can do it in a mouse, they can do it in a human," Prasad said. "The question is why would you want to do it in a human."

Nowadays infertile couples who want children have to go to a sperm or egg donor. "However if you can generate it from your own body [using stem cells], that means you're having a child that is genetically related to you," Prasad said. "A woman and her partner, for example, could create a child even if she and her partner were infertile."

It has other applications, for example, for gay couples. At the moment gay couples will use a surrogate mother. But the only thing a man, or a gay couple, lacks is a womb, and artificial wombs are in development. "You could think of it as a glorified incubator that could keep a baby alive for the full 40 weeks, potentially, " Prasad said.

We have the capacity to develop such a womb, according to some reproductive technologists. But Prasad sounded a cautionary note. "Just because these technologies are available, doesn't mean we can do it, because all of these things are regulated by policy and social infrastructures," she said. "For example, even if you're testing growing a womb in the lab, because we have regenerative medicine now, we can use tissues to grow organs, you're restricted, at least in the U.K., to destroying an embryo from whatever source at 14 days, because at 14 days after fertilization that's when your neural tube, which is the precursor of the brain, starts developing." For ethical reasons, then, you can't grow a baby embryo beyond 14 days, and therefore you can't know if it will actually survive. "However, it is said that within a hundred years we will see a womb that will be able to retain a baby for the entire period of gestation."

It's one thing to have the technological capability, but another to have it be socially accepted. When asked if she thought that opposition to such a development would keep it from being put into practice, Prasad was doubtful. "The religious opposition is there, but I think they're a minority," she said. "And I think, like IVF, where people objected to it, when they see the utility of a technology and how it can improve their lives, they will adopt it."






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