Depending upon your political persuasion, Hillary Clinton is either famous or infamous for popularizing the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. Taking the village’s influence back to the point of conception, Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), specifically a potential novel combination of human Induced Pluripotential Stem Cells (hiPSCs) and in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), just might make it possible for that same village (that is, more than two parents) to actually make the child.
Jon Holmlund has written extensively in this blog regarding both the technique and ethical considerations of hiPSC and more recently human extended pluripotential stem cells (hESCs) (e.g. see here for a recent example). Roughly, hiPSCs/hESCs create stem cells (cells that have the potential to become any other cell in the human body) from common cells such as adult skin cells. IVG is the process that has the potential to change the hiPSCs/hESCs into gametes (eggs and sperm) which then can be combined via in vitro fertilization (IVF) to make a baby. If the process can be reliably perfected in humans, there would be no physical barrier for a single individual, non-fertile heterosexual couple, homosexual couple, or frankly any number of people to have a baby that is his/her/their genetic offspring (see summary here for ethical arguments fully supportive of these techniques and here for legal arguments both pro and con). We have already crossed into the concept of group parenting with maternal spindle cell transfer used to prevent mitochondrial disease (the so-called three parent babies). With IVG, we needn’t stop at just three parents (from the Palacios-Gonzalez et. al. link):
“IVG could permit instead a much more substantive sharing of genetic kinship, through what is in essence a generational shortcut. Imagine that four people in a relationship want to parent a child while being all genetically related to her. IVG would enable the following scenario: first, two embryos would be generated from either couple through IVF with either naturally or in vitro generated gametes. hESC lines would be then established from both embryos and differentiated into IVG to be used in a second round of IVF. The resulting embryo would be genetically related to all four prospective parents, who would technically be the child’s genetic grandparents.”
There is a huge amount of ethical ground to consider with these technologies and most will be left to future blog-space. Let’s just consider one aspect. Traditionally, a heterosexual couple wasn’t really a family until they had a baby. ART is allowing (and perhaps will soon further allow) our culture’s expanding definition of what constitutes a family to have a baby that is his/her/their genetic offspring. So is ART driving an expanded definition of family, or is our expanded definition of family, in some sense, driving ART? Should we be asking a village to make a child?