Japanese scientists report they have successfully created artificially-derived eggs using mouse skin cells, and that some of those eggs could be fertilized with mouse sperm and produce born mice. Take a moment and read that sentence twice – it’s science but it isn’t fiction. The age of the motherless mouse has dawned.
Some scientists hail this as a significant advance believing that, by creating artificial human eggs, we might gain new knowledge about early human development, or possibly develop a technique to help infertile couples reproduce. But the technique also raises the specter of the large-scale creation of human beings, not just for reproduction but also for experiments, including designer babies to be bought and sold like any other commodity.
The technical details start with a fully ethical step: creation of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from a bit of skin from a mouse’s tail. The development of iPS cells, first created in 2006 (mouse) and 2007 (human), earned the 2012 Nobel Prize for Shinya Yamanaka; iPS cells have the same flexible stem cell characteristics as embryonic stem cells, but can be created from any cell and without the need to destroy a young life as is required to produce embryonic stem cells. The scientists then turned the iPS cells into immature egg cells in a petri dish. To get mature egg cells, the immature precursor cells had to be grown in the presence of mouse fetal tissue from ovaries. When these artificially-created mouse eggs were fertilized with mouse sperm, some of the resulting embryos could be gestated to birth and produce what appear to be healthy newborn mice. But the technique was very inefficient, often resulting in severely abnormal animals. Less than one percent successfully made it to birth.
While artificial human eggs are thus still far off, the technical understanding of how to create them exists, and we should be asking the questions now as to how they might be used, and whether they should be used or created at all.
Artificial human eggs, as with the newly-constructed mouse eggs, would likely be a poor substitute for the real thing. They would pose a safety and health problem for any humans conceived through use of such lab-created cells, not to mention risks for the surrogate mothers who might be consigned to gestate such designer babies.
Of perhaps even greater concern is the attitude engendered or reinforced by the creation and use of artificial human eggs—that laboratory-generated human beings can be manipulated and destroyed for experimental curiosity. The purpose of making large numbers of artificial eggs will be to conceive large numbers of human embryos, that is, to mass produce human beings on a grand scale. Large numbers of artificial human eggs are perfectly suited for unlimited experiments in human cloning, human genetic engineering, human-animal hybrids, and other unethical experiments creating and destroying human embryos.
Human beings are not simply commodities to be manufactured, but rather each is a life with inherent worth. The artifice of creating eggs for treating human frailty plays on another human characteristic, our desire to hope and believe. We should reject such beguiling techniques and the inhuman attitudes they foster.