"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...