With the sexy title, “Virgin Birth Stem Cells Bypass Ethical Objections,” today’s on-line New Scientist is hyping the possibility of producing embryonic stem cells from induced parthenogenesis, the stimulation of an oocyte (or “egg”) to begin dividing to produce an embryo. The flawed reasoning is that, since these embryos are short lived and do not involve sperm or fertilization, they will overcome ethical objections to the destruction of human embryos.
Parthenogenesis in humans has been difficult in the laboratory because human embryos (unlike the amphibians and insects who are known to be able to reproduce by parthenogensis) depend on genes in the sperm for the development of the trophoblast, which becomes the placenta. Human embryonic parthenotes usually die after a few divisions, and do not form blastocysts.
Linda Geddes, the author of the New Scientist blurb, doesn’t seem to be aware that the single embryonic stem cell line produced from thousands of human oocytes that the Korean veterinarian, Hwang Wu Suk, produced was determined to be the result of parthenogenis.
The excuses that “there’s no sperm involved, so it’s not human” (“male chauvenism” in its latest, high-tech, incarnation) and “it can never develop into a baby” (“. . . because we intend to kill her for our own purposes before a birth certificate is issued”) are used to overcome objections to human cloning, too.
However, if an embryo is produced by any technique using human chromosomes, it does not matter who her immediate parents are: she is an embryonic human.
To the male chauvenists: the embryo’s grandfather did donate sperm.
To the utilitarians: the intentional creation of a handicapped human increases, rather than decreases, the ethical responsibility to that human.
Oh, and by the way: “Hands off our ovaries!”