Published November 2, 2023
Last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article as fascinating as it was disturbing: “What If Men Could Make Their Own Egg Cells?” It discussed the work of Matt Krisiloff, CEO of Conception Biosciences. Krisiloff and his team are working on producing human embryos from genetic material that is not connected in origin to an egg or a sperm. Indeed, the article begins with a quotation from a Japanese biologist, Katsuhiko Hayashi, who believes that it will be possible to make human eggs from skin cells within a decade.
While the science is surely impressive, it raises all kinds of ethical questions. The article nods to the fact that developments in reproductive technology have transformed the notion of parenthood. Though it does not use the term, a contractual notion of parenthood as functional rather than natural seems to be emerging in the West. The recent (thankfully failed) bill in California that aimed to make affirmation of a child’s gender confusion a necessary parental virtue is a good, if egregious, example of this. Fail to affirm the correct political tastes and you are no longer considered a parent. Such cultural logic does not emerge in a vacuum or in a short span of time. The world of sperm and egg donation and surrogacy has attenuated the relationship between conception, pregnancy, and childbirth, fueling the kind of broader imaginative framework that makes the narrower logic of such a bill plausible. Gay adoptions have further contributed to this. While traditional adoption replaced the biological people (male and female) who should normally be there (as father and mother) with their equivalents, gay adoption effectively makes mothers and fathers fungible.
It is also interesting that children appear in the article as commodities, things to be made by a team of scientists. The parents will not conceive children in the traditional, haphazard, and deeply mysterious way. Rather they will be providers of genetic material from which children can be manufactured to order. Choice becomes key here, just as it is in purchasing a car or a toothbrush. And the feelings of the children manufactured this way are never addressed—how could they be? We can have no concept of how they might respond to finding out that they were made to order. Or how parents might respond when the child so produced doesn’t measure up to the description promised in the advertising. If the relationship is in essence contractual, what happens to the child who (dare one say it?) doesn’t fulfill the contract and is the equivalent of a factory second? Ours is a therapeutic world and its technologies often serve a therapeutic purpose, here for the happiness of adults. That too often means the other, passive (and thus most vulnerable) participants in the contract—the children themselves—are only considered after the fact, when it is already too late.
All of this tracks with a longstanding way of thinking about children in Western culture. From Percy Bysshe Shelley advocating marriage as a social contract for the sexual and emotional satisfaction of a man and a woman to our current system of no-fault divorce, children (if mentioned at all) play no primary role in the moral decision-making of the cultural regime.
The article did contain an intriguing comment. One advantage of the new technology, Krisiloff says, is that it would allow him, as a gay man, to have a biological child with his partner. My initial reaction was to see this as a paradoxical glimmer of hope. Reproductive technology has helped to dissolve the importance of biological relationships in society’s understanding of parenthood and yet there remains a basic intuition—even instinct—to have children who are biologically related to us. So perhaps the parental bond is not merely a social construct after all?
But when I made this comment at a seminar earlier this week, a friend responded that it might just as easily be a function of the emerging contractual view of parenthood and the commodification of children. Does Krisiloff think the genetic connection is important because biology carries an innate moral power that cannot be indefinitely denied, or rather because the genetic code the child would share with the parent is the equivalent of a stamp of ownership? One can only speculate, but the latter certainly seems more consistent both with the logic of the technology and that of the wider Western culture in which such technology has become plausible.
And here is one final disturbing thought. It seems to be the case that once the technologies of the therapeutic make something possible, it rapidly becomes desirable and then tilts toward being compulsory. We see this with euthanasia in Canada, where nearly one in twenty deaths in 2022 was by medically assisted suicide. So what of natural conception and childbirth? When radical feminists like Sophie Lewis talk about pregnancy as if it were nearly as bad for women’s bodies as cancer, one can imagine healthcare managers deciding that reproduction can be done more safely and efficiently by using skin cells rather than making love. Our culture could easily come to regard reproduction as a manufacturing industry. At that point, we really will have reduced children to things and thereby dehumanized ourselves.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.