The Current

Babies from skin cells? New fertility technology raises ethical questions

Scientists are studying a potential fertility treatment that takes adult human cells and transforms them into eggs and sperm.
A new and quickly progressing reproductive technology called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) could potentially give fertility clinics the ability to make sperm and eggs from people's skin. (John Javellana/Reuters)

Women producing sperm. Or, for that matter, men producing eggs. Those could, in theory, be some of the results of a new reproductive technology that's looming on the horizon, according to Glenn Cohen.

The Harvard professor was one of the authors of a paper looking at the promise as well as potential ethical pitfalls of in vitro gametogenesis (IVG).

The technology involves making an adult cell — often a skin cell — into an egg or sperm. Those could then be used to make an embryo, which can be implanted to become a baby.

The procedure might be able to help groups — such as women whose eggs were damaged by chemotherapy, older women, or gay couples — produce children genetically related to both parents.

So far it has been used successfully in mice.

But human trials are still a long way in the future, since the safety of the process and health of the potential babies still need to be proven.
Critics argue IVG could lead to 'designer babies' and 'embryo farming.' (Ben Birchall/Associated Press)

Cohen says now is the time to start sorting out the ethical questions.

One concern is around the issue of human enhancement, or "designer babies," since IVG could produce hundreds of thousands of embryos for parents to choose from. He makes an analogy with Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

"[Michelangelo] makes a mistake or he tries to change something — that's a very labourious process," Cohen tells The Current's Friday host Duncan McCue.

"Compare that with a modern day Michelangelo basically trying to do the Sistine Chapel on Photoshop. That person can try thousands and thousands of variations of the Sistine Chapel to find the ones they find most beautiful. That's what I think this might enable in terms of human enhancement."

Related: Babies from skin cells? Prospect is unsettling to some experts

He also has concerns about what he calls the "Brad Pitt scenario."

"If I could follow you around and take dead skin you left in a bathtub… and use that to derive your sperm or egg. In theory, I could make you a parent — genetically speaking ... without your consent."

Cohen believes these ethical questions can be overcome, but says we have to make sure the right regulations and laws are in place. 

NYU's head of medical ethics Arthur Caplan attributes much of the public reaction against IVG to what he calls the "yuck factor."

"People initially react to new technologies kind of with a queasy, doubting feeling of disgust, a kind of moral intuition that something's bad," Caplan tells McCue.
Bioethicist Françoise Baylis says reproductive strategies like IVG put too much of an emphasis on a genetic link and undermines other ways of creating families. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

He says that some people had the same reaction to technologies like IVF, GMO foods, or even blood transfusions when those were new.

But he argues that this isn't an ethical argument.

"Just because somebody says that's yucky doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't be doing it," says Caplan.

Although he says the safety of IVG needs to be proven, he doesn't see real ethical objections that would stand in the way of IVG technology — but thinks something more practical might.

"The big issue will be cost," says Caplan.

"So I do worry that the technique might only be available to those who are better off."

Françoise Baylis has a broader concern about the ideology behind IVG as well as other reproductive technologies.

"What I see as deeply problematic is that all of those reproductive strategies are only beneficial if you believe what is important about family-making is a genetic link," says Dalhousie University's Canada research chair in bioethics and philosophy.

"We should not be valorizing genetic links and thereby undermining multiple other ways of creating families."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien and Karin Marley.