October 5, 2022

Is Singapore ready for mass production of eggs and sperm from stem cells?

Scientists generated lab-grown artificial sperm and eggs from rats and mice, which then successfully produced healthy offspring, a procedure known as In vitro gametogenesis (IVG). Progress has been rapid.

In 2016, researchers from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences produced functional sperm from mouse stem cells that can generate healthy offspring, and these then gave birth to the next generation.

In 2021, Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University generated functional eggs from stem cells derived from mouse skin. This was achieved by artificially replicating the natural soup of nutrients and growth factors found in mouse ovaries in the culture dish.

In April 2022, it was announced that Toshihiro Kobayashi of the University of Tokyo had obtained functional sperm from rat stem cells that could generate viable offspring, a feat previously only possible with mice. .

Are human applications ahead?

There are still many obstacles before abortion can be applied to humans. Nevertheless, it is highly plausible that the technique will eventually be carried out for the treatment of human fertility.

How it works in Singapore, a highly urbanized Asian country with ultra-low fertility rates, a rapidly aging population and a sophisticated biotech industry, will influence other East Asian countries.

Abortion is complex and labor intensive, so it will cost significantly more than conventional fertility treatment – ​​which is already extremely expensive. Abortion for the relatively small number of patients with primary infertility resulting from birth defects, accidental injury to reproductive organs, chemotherapy, and premature ovarian failure will not be commercially viable.

It will be a niche market for the wealthy. .

One application that could be exploited commercially is posthumous reproduction for bereaved spouses and parents. Tissues and cells could be harvested from a cadaver and used to produce artificial eggs and sperm via abortion, with the resulting embryos transferred to a surrogate mother. Needless to say, this would be very controversial, especially if there is no informed consent from the deceased. Additionally, there are also ethical concerns regarding the rights, welfare, and psychological impact on posthumous children.

Another small market would be for transgender and intersex couples. Under Singapore law, intersex and transgender people are allowed to marry, provided they have had sex reassignment surgery, which allows them to legally change their sex on their personal identification documents. Nevertheless, there are very few intersex and transgender people in Singapore.

Market potential

Where is the market potential? There are four areas: female age-related infertility; same-sex couples; the mass production of donor eggs and sperm for the treatment of infertile patients; and the mass production of human eggs for eugenic applications.

In Singapore, there would be few moral objections to deal with age-related infertility with abortion. Singapore is a rapidly aging society with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The government is unlikely to discourage new methods of producing children. However, abortion may lead to new ethical problems in the treatment of female age-related infertility, such as the pressure on women to give birth at an advanced age or the pressure on women to follow “masculine” career structures.

More problematic would be abortion to allow gay and lesbian couple to have children who share their genetic heritage. For example, artificial eggs could be produced from male stem cells, which can be fertilized by another man’s sperm, and the resulting embryos implanted into a surrogate mother. Similarly, artificial sperm can be produced from female stem cells and used to impregnate another woman.

Even in Singapore, that might be a step too far. But Singaporean same-sex couples could still access overseas abortions. This could put legal and political pressure on the government to recognize descendants as Singaporean citizens. Indeed, recent court cases have highlighted the importance of genetic affinity and blood ties between children and parents, as well as the priority given to the welfare of the child over public policies based on societal norms.

For example, in the Thomson Fertility Center’s IVF semen-mixing case court decision a few years ago, it was explicitly stated that “ordinary human experience is that parents and children are related by blood ties and this fact of experience – heredity – has deep socio-cultural significance. In another landmark case, the Singapore High Court has accepted a gay man’s application to adopt his biological son born through a surrogate mother. The Chief Justice said the need to promote the welfare of the child is paramount and outweighs public policy against the formation of same-sex family units.

My feeling is that the Singaporean government will reluctantly recognize the relationship between children conceived through abortion and same-sex parents. They will have citizenship and residency rights, parenthood grants and an automatic right of inheritance for the child to the parent’s estate, in the absence of a will.

Mass production of sperm and eggs for infertile patients could be a lucrative market but an ethical minefield. Personalized abortion for each patient would lead to excessive production of eggs and sperm that could be donated to other infertile patients who cannot afford the high costs of the procedure.

Besides the obvious issue of patients’ informed consent in the donation process, there are also ethical and legal issues related to the rights and welfare of children conceived in this way. The most pressing of these concerns the fractured and confused identity of donor-conceived children and their right to know their genetic heritage, such as family history of inherited diseases. It is for this reason that anonymous sperm and egg donation is currently prohibited in several Western countries.

Even more controversial would be the mass production of eggs and sperm from movie stars, models, sports stars, brilliant musicians, Nobel Prize winning scientists, etc. If the demand for a model’s eggs or a baseball star’s sperm were high enough, IVG could ramp up mass production to supply eugenics agencies.

Of course, this risks creating involuntary incestuous sexual relations and marriages between many offspring of the same donor-conceived individual. There is also the possibility of the well-documented phenomenon of genetic sexual attraction between close relatives who first meet in adulthood.

Finally, abortion has eugenic potential. Its promoters claim that it can be used to prevent the transmission of genetic diseases. But the same techniques will make eugenics easier for future parents. Even though genome editing is prohibited, abortion greatly increases the number of available embryos from which to select the “ideal” future child through genetic testing and analysis. Currently, artificial intelligence algorithms are being developed to select the best and healthiest IVF embryos through genetic screening.

After all, according to some bioethicists, parents want the best for their children. They invoke the theory of “procreative beneficence”, according to which parents have an important moral reason to select, among the possible children they could have, the child who is most likely to experience the greatest well-being, that is, the most favored child. , the child most likely to have the best life.

All of these possibilities are falling away. Quick. Singapore must be prepared.

Alexis Heng
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