From artificial wombs to men and women being able to reproduce entirely alone, Aarathi Prasad says science is rewriting the rules of sex and human reproduction. What would that mean for our ideas of family and parenthood
Over tea at her north London home, Aarathi Prasad is talking calmly, coolly, about reproduction. But not sex. Specifically not sex. Her subject is technologies that would take intercourse out of the reproductive equation, advances that could challenge everything we know about family and the relationship between men and women. Their potential is summed up in the final paragraphs of her new book, Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex.
Here she describes the “ultimate solo parent” of the future. This woman can use her own stem cells and an artificial Y chromosome to produce healthy new eggs and sperm at any age, is capable of reproducing entirely alone by making one of her eggs behave like a pseudo-sperm that can be used to fertilise herself, and has no need to carry the embryo in her own body. Instead it gestates in an artificial womb, which acts as a highly evolved incubator. The same field of technology would enable gay couples to have children created from both their DNA, and make it just as easy for a man to become a single parent as a woman.
Prasad writes that this would be “the great biological and social equaliser” before adding that the question isn’t if it will happen, but when. She is softly spoken and thoughtful, and our conversation circles around chromosomes, DNA and IVF, before returning repeatedly to the artificial womb, the potential of which seems to grow and shift the more we discuss it. If we could grow embryos outside the body, it would change women’s life choices entirely. We wouldn’t have to worry about when to have children – between this advance and eggs created from stem cells, it would be possible at any age. Men and women could have an equal role in parenting, right from conception. Of all the current reproductive possibilities, it is this potential advance that could be most revolutionary – and perhaps the most troubling too.
The decision to write Like a Virgin grew from Prasad’s own desire to have children. She was brought up in Trinidad, then London, with her parents and brother, and dreamed of having a large family. In her mid-20s, while finishing a PhD in cancer genetics, she had a daughter, Tara, but her relationship with Tara’s father ended during the pregnancy. By the time she was 30 her hopes for a big brood were faltering. Her mother had experienced menopause quite early, and she suspected she might too.
“I remember waking up one Saturday morning, on a bed with my daughter in my mum’s loft, thinking, well, if some animals can have babies without males, why can’t humans? So many women are like me, in their 30s, we do want our careers … and we’re looking for the right partner. And then you get older and it looks less likely to happen.”
Prasad had studied male infertility and other aspects of developmental biology; she decided to find out more about her choices and what was going on at the cutting edge of reproductive science. Her book takes a broad, historical look at the notion of reproduction without sex, moving from ancient stories of virgin birth to a 16th-century experiment involving semen being placed in a glass tube and buried in horse manure, in the hope it might grow into a small, transparent homunculus. (It didn’t.)
But the book is most extraordinary when it considers the future of reproduction without sex. Along with the artificial womb, the other possible advance Prasad finds most exciting is the potential to create healthy, new young eggs from our stem cells. There have been studies conducted on animals, she says, in which bone marrow from a female has been used to generate eggs.
“You can also take bone marrow from men, to generate sperm, and you can generate eggs from men too, which is quite interesting. It’s not magic,” she adds. It’s because men have an X and a Y chromosome, while women, having two X chromosomes, are more limited in this respect. However, an embryo could still be created that mixed the DNA of two females, a process that has been tried successfully in mice. In 2004, Kaguya the mouse was born without a father. She was created by “constructing an egg out of material from one mature egg, and one immature egg,” Prasad writes. Manipulation of DNA essentially allowed the scientists to use an egg’s chromosomes as if they had come from a sperm.
This area of technology would allow a woman to procreate alone too, using two of her own eggs, an idea Prasad laughs off as megalomaniacal when we discuss it initially. “I wouldn’t see a woman creating a baby out of herself. I mean, maybe they would. Maybe Lady Gaga would, some maverick.”
The child wouldn’t be a clone, she notes, because, “every time you create an egg there’s a shuffling of the DNA, which is why siblings don’t tend to look the same.”
But surely for people who want to reproduce and don’t have a partner, going it alone might not be prompted by narcissism – more by their confidence in their own DNA and family medical history, versus that of an unknown donor?
“I can see that happening,” says Prasad, “and it might sound weird, but is it? I think the real question is, is the baby going to be healthy? If the answer to that is yes, and the mother is able to look after it, then who are we to say?”
Artificial wombs would challenge social attitudes too, perhaps even more profoundly. These have long been a staple of science fiction, but they have also been created and used in reality – although for sharks rather than humans. Prasad writes about the team of scientists who, in 2008, developed an artificial womb to try to halt the decline of the grey nurse shark. Each female shark of this variety has two wombs, and while dozens of embryos are produced in each of their pregnancies, only the strongest two survive, one in each womb.
This is because the shark foetuses nourish themselves through cannibalism, eating their potential siblings. The outcome is that the female sharks produce only two pups every two years. In addressing this problem, scientists have gestated wobbegong embryos (wobbegongs are similar to grey nurses, but not endangered), for increasingly long periods in an artificial womb, with great success. They hope, soon, to gestate one from conception.
Scientists in Japan and the US are working to find out whether a similar device could be used for humans, and the noted reproductive researcher Hung-Ching Liu has said that having a child in the laboratory is her final goal. As Prasad writes, Liu has “already managed to grow the lining for a human womb, using a sort of scaffolding over which cells, cultured from a woman’s womb, could multiply … When it was tested using fertilised eggs left over from IVF cycles, the eggs implanted in it, at six days, just as they would in a real womb.”
Liu’s experiment had to end eight days after implantation, Prasad explains, because researchers are not allowed to grow human foetuses for more than 14 days in the lab.
There are therefore regulatory and ethical as well as technological barriers to overcome in many of these reproductive advances, but when I ask Prasad whether she thinks we’ll see artificial wombs used by humans in her lifetime, she is positive. “If my lifetime was another 40 years, yes,” she says.
If babies are gestated outside the human body, it would immediately disrupt all our notions about who should be the primary parent, and about male and female roles as a whole. “It would get away from that question of mother and father,” says Prasad, “and instead become: what is a parent?”
In Like a Virgin, Prasad describes some of the ethical dilemmas that might result, exploring, for instance, the bond between a pregnant woman and her baby. This is often considered sacred and essential, but she sees it differently. Watching a child grow from a tiny cluster of cells, right through to birth, might result in a bond that was equally special, she suggests.
Researching the book, Prasad visited a neonatal unit in Hackney, east London, where she saw very premature babies in incubators. The experience felt voyeuristic, she says, because “you’re looking into this womb, this box, and thinking, I shouldn’t be able to see that. But it’s just so beautiful to see this doll-like creature growing.”
She compares this with the scans pregnant women have – that moment they’re first able to “see” their child. When a woman has a scan at 12 weeks, “Your stomach is completely flat, there’s no sign of the pregnancy except the test you’ve taken. And then there’s this beautiful, perfectly formed child [on the screen] and you’re in tears. That’s bonding. Feeling the baby inside you can be too, but sometimes it’s really hard for the mother … This whole concept of the perfection of maternal bonding – it’s not like that. There’s no ideal. And I don’t think that having a child in a place that’s not in your body is necessarily bad for bonding.”
In fact, she says, it could be good because it would be impossible to get pregnant like this accidentally “and, secondly, the womb can be a bad place for babies.” She mentions smoking, drinking and drug use, and adds: “This whole idea of nature being fantastic – it’s not. We can learn from it, but we can also improve on it. And there are situations where it’s not healthy, and babies would be better off outside.”
That’s true in some cases, but what about positive influences in the womb, the influence a healthy, happy mother has on a growing foetus? Prasad believes it would be possible to replicate these too. “If a baby was growing in a box from beginning until end, and you knew what those influences are, you could manipulate them. The signals that make a person happy are because of certain chemicals they’re producing in their brain, dictated by their genes, dictated maybe by one of their parents being like that. But it’s a chemical signal, and those are completely replicable in an artificial situation.
“I mean, we are machines, after all. We have all these ethical and social over-layers, but the body is a machine.”
Continuing in this vein, Prasad says a “hardcore, serious mother” whose child was gestating in an artificial womb could be injected “with stuff to make her produce milk by the time the baby is born, so she is expressing certain hormones that we know are related to maternal bonding. You could recreate all that. There is a pathway of knock-on effects when your body realises an egg has been fertilised: your periods stop and there’s a cascade of hormones. You could still do all that.”
Not that it would necessarily be the woman who would breastfeed. Someone pointed out to Prasad that men can produce milk too: “They’ve got mammary glands, and I haven’t looked into this, but say that was possible, then you’re really asking who is the mother, and who is the father? If you unhinge all of these things from their very basis, you’d have to rethink who does what.”
Given that men and women would have an equal chance to bond with the baby during gestation, there would be more potential than ever for parenting to be fully shared. So does all this spell the end of sex? Are we about to start reproducing in entirely new ways?
Prasad says she doesn’t think these technologies will be used by everyone. “The people who are interested in it are those who have problems in having babies”. But it’s not hard to imagine artificial wombs, for instance, being used more broadly. If there was a viable, entirely healthy alternative, would women necessarily choose to go through pregnancy?
We’re some way from finding out.
Prasad recognises that many people find these ideas and technologies enormously problematic, but takes a scientist’s view. She points out that there was criticism when spectacles were first invented, with some saying the advance went against nature. “There are a lot of things animals do that we can’t,” she says, “like flying and camouflage, and we’ve adapted, through technology … It’s funny when people say something is natural, or not. Compared with what? Compared with when? It’s this vanity of humans to think of themselves as special, as being at the height of evolution. We’re not. We’re obviously still adapting.”
There has been uproar over reproductive technologies before, she notes. In the late 1970s, when Lesley Brown was pregnant with the world’s first “test tube” baby the intense media interest forced her into hiding. “With the first IVF there was an outcry, and then people say, ‘Well, if it helps people who are childless …'”
Prasad shrugs. “One of the fertility scientists I was speaking to said that every time there’s a press story about eggs and sperm being created, his phone doesn’t stop ringing. So there are all these people who are high-falutin’, and will talk about the ethics and the morals. And then there are people who are infertile who will just pick up the phone and say ‘can you help me?'”
Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex is published by Oneworld on 23 August, £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846