Human Genetics and Reproduction Part 2

About the development of science in the fields of genetics and reproduction. This part focuses specifically on artificial insemination and invitro fertilization.


If the father carries a dangerous gene, prospective parents can avoid problems through artificial insemination, a technique originally developed to counter male sterility. Usually, the baby's natural father is a medical student who got a small fee for providing semen free from known defects. Before the 1960s, AID--the medical acronym for artificial insemination by donor--was a hush-hush affair. The attending physician discreetly sought a donor resembling the mother's husband; any choice on her part would have verged on adultery.

More recently, a Norwegian clinic asked 303 prospective mothers what they wanted, genetically speaking, from their donors. Of these, 230 specified intelligence, high principles, sound body and mind, and a healthy family history; only 73 requested a faithful likeness to their husbands. At first blush, this "germinal choice" style AID program seems fairly sensible. After all, the semen of prize bulls is taken, frozen inside tiny glass ampules at -196 deg. C, then used to impregnate cows the world over. By this means, certain top-quality bulls have been able to sire over 10,000 calves a year. As a result, we enjoy stronger, healthier cattle. Why not do the same with Olympic medalists, Nobel laureates, or accomplished artists? Imagine the swift trade and dizzy prices for superstar semen. Fact is, some form of "positive eugenics" might very well bless us with successively healthier generations, if we had some basis for making all the perplexing decisions involved.

Sperm is only half the story. Doctors Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe have recently perfected a procedure--they call it laparoscopy--to help women with congenital oviduct blockages bear children. After stimulating the ovaries with hormones, Edwards and Steptoe surgically remove the resulting eggs and fertilize them with sperm from the woman's husband. The fertile eggs grow in a warm, nutrient-rich solution for eight days, then one is selected to become junior. A small operation places this minute embryo in the woman's womb, where it attaches itself to the wall. Nine months later, a formerly infertile woman experiences the joy of motherhood.

Despite this, some theologians liken artificial inovulation to homicide. After all, only one of several fertile eggs is implanted; the rest are discarded, and some would say these were human lives cruelly snuffed. Though this objection has been voiced the loudest, artificial inovulation raises other, far more chilling issues.

Once fertilized, the egg can be implanted in any womb. Livestock breeders take advantage of this to increase the number of calves from a prize dairy cow. They remove eggs and fertilize them with prize bull semen, then implant them in the wombs of other cows. For shipment, the fertile eggs can be implanted in a rabbit's womb for several days. On arrival, the fertile eggs are removed from the rabbit and each is implanted in the womb of a cow. These procedures may work to our advantage at the dairy, but what if we adopt them ourselves? If one woman carries another's fertilized egg, whose child is it at birth? Even Solomon would have had trouble with that one.

Suppose the hospital simply nurtures the fertile eggs to full term in an artificial environment, relieving the mother of pregnancy and labor pains. This reality is closer than we think. Dr. Daniele Petrucci of Italy succeeded in growing a human embryo for 29 days, and said he could have continued. That was in 1961. How long before modern medicine perfects test-tube baby production a la Brave New World? In all likelihood, the artificial womb is possible now, but its use is fraught with riddles. Whose eggs are collected? Whose sperm fertilizes them? Whose children grow under glass?

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