Fertility breakthrough in Japan - an ethicist's view

Analysis by Dr Iain Brassington, ethicist, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy ,University of Manchester.

“The news that Japanese researchers have successfully induced skin cells to behave like viable eggs, which have then been fertilised to create a new generation of mice, may well come to be seen as a scientific milestone.

“Though the research does not necessarily translate into humans, it appears to demonstrate that the genetic material found in every cell in the body can be put to use in the creation of offspring. In principle, this offers infertile women the opportunity to have children that are genetically related, even if they do not have viable eggs of their own: cells from another part of the body could be used and “reprogrammed” to behave as eggs would.

“At the same time, there is likely to be a number of concerns raised about the ethics and legal status of such a procedure. Putting the procedure to use in humans would be illegal under current UK law, since the synthesised eggs would not be what the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act calls “permitted”.

“From an ethical point of view, there may be concerns raised about the safety of such procedures: for example, would any child created this way have any genetic “booby-traps” that might go off in later life?  It may not be easy to see such dangers when the experimental creature is as short-lived as a mouse. Concerns may also be raised about the idea that this represents creating children to order, and about human dignity.

“These concerns are probably over-done; it is certainly not obvious that they are definitively enough for us to be able to say that this research is in any way sinister.  In respect of the safety worry, for example, as long as the child were to have a life worth living, it is hard to see why it would ever be better for it not to have been created.

“What is more ethically problematic is the question of what it takes to be a mother in the first place.  If we think that someone cannot be a mother without a genetic link to the child she raises, then that would suggest that anyone who wants to be a mother but who cannot generate eggs of her own would have a reason to embrace technology such as this. But it is not at all clear that a genetic relationship is a necessary criterion of motherhood – for example, there are millions of women who adopt, or foster, who count themselves as mothers in a full and rich sense; the same applies to step-parents. Motherhood need not imply a genetic relationship.

“Moreover, it is worth pausing to consider the context of this research. Fertility research is expensive, as is its possible application.  Meanwhile, there are millions of people around the world who lack basic sanitation and who die from easily preventable disease; millions more currently have their lives threatened by malaria, HIV and so on. Hence while breakthroughs like this are, in their own terms, exciting and probably welcome, it is worth pausing to ask whether the money and effort expended might have been worth expending in other fields.”

Notes for editors

Dr Brassington is available for comment

For media enquiries

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567