Tuesday 25 October 2016

Plans for motherless babies are a gross attack on children's rights

Published 16/09/2016 | 02:30

How many of us would want to be brought into the world using a technique that meant we never had a genetic mother because she never even existed?
How many of us would want to be brought into the world using a technique that meant we never had a genetic mother because she never even existed?

Some children are deprived of a mother through death. Others are deprived of a mother because the mother has walked out. We always consider that the child in this situation has suffered a tragic loss. But what of the child who has never had a mother? That is to say, the mother has never even existed?

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If this sounds like something out of a science fiction film, that might soon be about to change. Research published in the journal 'Nature Communications' reports that three generations of mice have been created without the necessity of using a female egg.

Instead, the skin cells of mice have been 'tricked' into becoming de facto eggs that have then been fertilised using sperm.

The cell might come from a male mouse and the sperm from that same mouse, meaning this mouse is both the 'mother' and the father of its offspring. The infant mouse would still have to be gestated in the womb of a female mouse - a surrogate mother - but that female would 'merely' be the birth mother of the infant mouse, not the biological/genetic mother.

The scientists behind this research believe that soon they may be able to do the same thing with humans. A surrogate mother would still be needed to carry the child, but no egg need be involved. A single man, for example, could use his own sperm to fertilise an 'egg' created from a cell taken from his skin.

If this raises no ethical concerns among us, then something has gone very badly wrong. About the only defensible use I can think of for this technique is when a woman cannot produce eggs of her own and a cell from her body is 'tricked' into becoming a de facto egg. In this case, the child would have a biological mother.

This aside, it is impossible to justify any other use for this promised breakthrough. Producing motherless children is unconscionable. How many of us would like to be brought into being in such a way, to never have had a mother, to never be able to see so much as a picture of your mother because your biological 'mother' and your biological father were one and the same person?

And even if the sperm of one man was combined with the 'egg' of another man, the child would still have no biological mother. His biological parents would be two men.

We are rightly concerned when adopted children go looking for their natural parents (it is usually the mother they seek out) and can't find them. How much worse would it be if they had to be told that the nearest thing they ever had to a mother was the surrogate who carried them for nine months and who they have no contact with anyway?

In time, scientists may even develop artificial wombs so that no woman at all need be involved in the making of a baby. They are also likely in the future to be able to 'trick' female cells into becoming 'sperm' and so a man need in no way, shape or form be involved in the making of a baby either. There has already been talk of this. The baby would be fatherless in the most radical way possible.

So what we are rapidly moving towards is essentially the dehumanisation of the process of making babies, or at a minimum the 'de-sexing' of it in the sense that sex need not be involved (that is obviously already the case because of the likes of IVF), and in the sense that both sexes will not be required.

For the first time in human history, in other words, the male and the female of the species will not be required to produce a child even though this is the one and only reason why our species consists of male and female. It would be a rejection of something incredibly fundamental about ourselves and the way we perpetuate ourselves.

The children brought into being using this promised technique will obviously have no say in the matter and if, as they grow up, they object to how they were conceived they will be told to be quiet on the grounds that they would not even exist if this technique had not been used.

This is already what children brought into being using purchased sperm or purchased eggs or rented wombs are being told, so why would that change?

I can imagine that the debate over this promised new way of bringing children into the world will somehow be dragged into the 'religion versus science' debate. That would completely short-circuit it and bring an end to all rational discussion. If the objection to this technique is seen to be mainly religious, then all further objections will melt away on the grounds that religion cannot be allowed to 'impede' science.

But actually this is really a dispute between science and ethics. Just because science can do it, doesn't mean it should do it. Science must be bounded by human rights.

If we cannot agree that a child has a human right to have a mother and should never be deliberately deprived of a mother to the point where a biological mother to the child never even existed, then 'human rights' have taken a very wrong turn.

Unfortunately, this issue could well be dragged into the 'science versus religion' debate and then 'science' will win. We will permit babies to be brought into being in this way in the name of 'progress' and 'choice'.

But there is nothing 'progressive' about bringing into being motherless children. If the will is there, we can stop it and it is something everyone who is concerned about true human rights, whether they are religious or not, should be able to agree about.

Irish Independent

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