In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, biologist Greg Hampikian declared that “women are both necessary and sufficient for reproduction, and men are neither.” The provocative title: “Men, Who Needs Them?” But in light of a new discovery from Cambridge researchers that sperm and eggs could potentially be created from skin cells, there’s no telling what human reproduction will look like by the end of the century or how gender will matter, if at all. Forget everything you know about making babies. In the far future, gay male couples could be having biological offspring without a surrogate and women could be having children in old age.
As the Guardian reports, a team of researchers led by Azim Surani at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge developed “primitive forms of artificial sperm and eggs” known as primordial germ cells (PGCS) out of skin tissue. These PGCs are “genetically matched” to the tissue donor, which would hypothetically allow couples suffering from fertility issues to have their own biological offspring instead of resorting to the use of a sperm or egg donor. Men and women who become infertile as a result of chemotherapy could also regain their reproductive capabilities. And because the cells are also “wiped clean” of the epigenetic mutations that occur in our bodies over time, they could provide important insights into age-linked diseases like diabetes or cancer.
But while the reporting on the Cambridge discovery in late December focused on immediate practical applications of this research for both fertility treatments and diseases, the ability to create germ cells from skin tissue has even more far-reaching implications for the future of human reproduction—ones that haven’t yet been fully considered. The possible consequences of this research, ripped straight from the pages of a sci-fi novel, would upend almost all of our traditional cultural understandings of gender and reproduction. By the end of the 21st century, the birds and the bees won’t just be different, they’ll be unrecognizable.
For one, Hampikian’s declaration that men are irrelevant to reproduction may have been decidedly premature. Surani tells the Guardian that women’s skin cells can only produce eggs because they typically lack a Y chromosome—but that skin tissue from men (who have both X and Y chromosomes) could hypothetically produce both eggs and sperm, although such an outcome seems “unlikely” at present.
As Surani wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Beast, “This is technically very difficult. It would require changing normal XY male cells into XO cells, that is removing the Y chromosome to make it possible to make eggs from these cells.”
But in the rare event that human men turn out to be reproductively ambidextrous, as it were, they could gain access to an unprecedented level of reproductive independence. Reports of the “end of men,”turns out, have been greatly exaggerated.
Complete male reproductive independence would also hinge on artificial womb technology, which also made headlines in 2014. Ectogenesis—the technical term for the artificial womb—has been in development for over 10 years and futurist Zoltan Istvan predicts that it will be available and used widely within 30 years.
In an e-mail to the Daily Beast, Istvan added that “it’s very possible that natural birthing will start disappearing over the next 25 to 50 years because of advancing technology.”
So far, goat embryos have been carried to term in these artificial wombs but human embryos have only been grown for 10 days due to current restrictions on human cloning. If it turns out that viable sperm and eggs can be produced from male skin tissue, the existence of artificial wombs could hypothetically allow two men to create both kinds of sex cells from their skin, fertilize the egg with the sperm in vitro, and grow the the resulting embryo outside of a human womb. No women would have to be involved at any point. For the first time in human history, reproduction could become a boy’s club. But while we can dream of this possibility, Surani cautions that it’s far too early to imagine it happening anytime soon.
“I should stress that this work is at a very stage and there is much basic work needed first, before even contemplating [that] possibility,” Surani told The Daily Beast.
Still, such an outcome would not be unprecedented in mammals—male and female mice with two biological fathers have already been produced. The process will not work the same with humans, of course, but Surani’s team may have just taken a very early step toward allowing gay men to reproduce without having to rely on a donor or a surrogate. Women—who needs them?
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction and this new reproductive technology will almost certainly change the future for women, too. If the combination of PGC research and artificial womb technology allows men to achieve the same level of reproductive independence as women, it could theoretically allow women to achieve the same reproductive flexibility as men. A fair trade, perhaps.
For men, lifelong reproductive viability is a near certainty but for women, reproduction is a complex process that must be carefully timed. Eggs, after all, are a finite and depletable resource. A woman typically starts her life with millions of eggs but only 400 or so will ever undergo ovulation. To freeze these eggs, a woman must take a regimen of fertility medications and have her eggs harvested through a vaginal probe. The whole process is not only convoluted, it’s expensive, too—one round of treatment can cost up to $15,000 And even if a woman freezes her eggs, she still puts both her body and her baby at risk if she delays childbirth too long. Advanced maternal age dramatically increases the risk of maternal mortality as well as birth defects like Down Syndrome.
Creating PGCs from skin tissue, on the other hand, seems like a walk in the park compared to egg freezing. As Surani told the Guardian: “It’s remarkably fast. We can now take any embryonic stem cell line and once we have them in the proper conditions, we can make these primordial cells in five to six days.” Turning these PGCs into viable sex cells, as Surani is careful to note, will require further research but if we do eventually succeed in producing eggs from PGCs, skin tissue would almost certainly be easier to collect than eggs. Ovaries—who needs them?
What this would mean is nothing short of the shattering of the notion of the biological clock. At present, not every woman is young enough, fertile enough, or healthy enough to have a baby using her own eggs or her own womb. But in a world where eggs can be created from skin and babies can be grown in artificial wombs, women would theoretically have the option to distance themselves from the nuts and bolts of human reproduction and have babies at virtually any age with no bodily toll. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how men can participate in reproduction right now.
Judging from current figures, there would be a substantial demand for this option, too. The CDC (PDF) reports that the average age of first-time mothers in the U.S. increased from 21.4 years in 1970 to 25 years in 2006. Over that time period, the number of women giving birth at age 35 or over increased nearly eight times, from 1 out of every 100 first births to 1 out of every 12 first births. The trend is particularly concentrated in the coastal states where women are wealthier, more educated, and more liberal. But if women could behave like, well, men when it comes to reproduction, they would no longer have to face the familiar devil’s bargain between career and childbirth. The quandary of whether to freeze eggs or not could become irrelevant overnight.
But while this technology would physically allow women to bear children with little interruption to their career or education, what happens after childbirth would still be determined by social attitudes. The pesky thing about babies is that someone has to take care of them once they’re born. Gender roles exceed the biological circumstances of childbirth and they are, perhaps, much less likely to change. Women in the U.S., for example, still bear the brunt of housework and childrearing even though they are now also primary breadwinners in nearly half of all households. In the absence of cultural shifts, then, new reproductive technology might not matter as much for women as it would for men. For the first time, the potential for men and women to play flexible and equal roles in reproduction seems possible in the future but that possibility hinges on the gendered distribution of labor within American households.
In the two years since Hampikian’s New York Times op-ed about men’s reproductive irrelevance, the distant future of human reproduction has undergone a monumental shift. If sex cells come from skin and babies come from tanks, so much of our gendered reproductive vocabulary becomes irrelevant: pregnancy, copulation, surrogate, fertility, donor.
All of these far future speculations, of course, depend on a series of “ifs.” It will be years before we know if PGCs can indeed be turned into viable sex cells, if male skin tissue can be used to create an egg, and if human babies can safely be carried to term in an artificial womb. But as reproductive technology becomes more sophisticated and more removed from the human body, one thing’s for certain: the rulebook for reproduction will need to be completely rewritten. The end of conventional childbirth might only be a matter of time.