Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Are motherless babies really a step forward?

You can, I maintain, get the Brits to agree to almost any biomedical advance – I use the word in its neutral sense – no matter how repellent, on the basis that it helps sick kiddies or the infertile. So we now have a situation whereby you can actually create human embryos for the purpose of experimentation – thereby instrumentalising the human being in unprecedented fashion. We have also allowed for the creation of three-parent embryos (on the odd basis that mitochondrial DNA is somehow unimportant). And if we don’t have cross-species zygotes yet, it’s only because the process has proved scientifically unfruitful, rather than because David Cameron didn’t give his backing to it.

Now we’ve got another British advance on the bioethics front; the prospect of creating embryos without the benefit of female gametes as a result of an experiment on mice by the University of Bath. It demonstrates that in theory any cell in the human body could be fertilised by a sperm. In practice, it has been carried out with parthenogenotes, a type of proto-embryo.

Dr Tony Perry, a molecular embryologist and senior author of the report on the experiment observed perkily: ‘Some people say, “start the day on an egg”, but what this paper says is that you don’t necessarily have to start development with one. It has been thought only an egg cell was capable of reprogramming sperm to allow embryonic development. Our work challenges that dogma.’ And we do love dogma-challenging, don’t we? Dogma; a bit Catholic, no, for this fundamentally Protestant culture?

The beneficiaries of this exciting approach, which promise to supplant the fuddy-duddy process of human reproduction – IVF has obviously already removed the messy business of sexual intercourse from having babies – are, of course, those women who haven’t quite got round to having children within the 40-year window provided by nature, and can carry on having children later in life; also those who have had chemotherapy and haven’t frozen their ova.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in