Are we on the cusp of synthesizing life itself?
In March this year, a laboratory at Japan’s University of Osaka caused a stir by creating a synthetic egg from stem cells taken from a male mouse, then using this to breed apparently healthy full-term mice with two genetic fathers. Then, in June, outlets like The Guardian reported that a research group from the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology had successfully created “synthetic human embryos” (though the researchers themselves more modestly described their creations as “human embryo-like models”). In July, NPR profiled Conception, a Bay Area firm that claims to be a year away from synthetic creation of human eggs. Just last week, NPR published another profile of similar research at Osaka University in Japan.
The technology at the heart of these breathless headlines is in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG): the laboratory creation of gametes, the two kinds of reproductive cell that fuse to form a new individual among sexually dimorphic species. The technique turns a type of cell called induced pluripotent stem cells—which can be used to create any type of cell in a living body—into either a sperm or egg. The lead scientist in Osaka, Katsuhiko Hayashi, has predicted that “Purely in terms of technology, it will be possible [in humans] even in 10 years” to create viable human embryos able to develop into fetuses, babies, and then children.
Some progressives have hailed this technology as a possible breakthrough for infertile, transgender, or same-sex attracted people who wish to have a baby genetically connected to both parents. For many researchers in the field, this has a personal dimension: Matt Krisiloff, Conception’s co-founder, told NPR that as a gay man he is motivated by the prospect of being able to father children with a male partner.
What would the implications of such technologies be for women? The first and most obvious point to make is that, while headlines may talk about two men “having a baby,” there is as yet no realistic prospect of doing so without human gestation. As such, the person “having” a baby created from the genetic material provided by two men would still not be either of the men.
Having the power to strip the female genetic component from fertility would transform the cultural meaning of gestation. In turn, this would entrench a view of women as mere incubators or vessels—a view that’s already tacitly in evidence in the language and imagery surrounding commercial surrogacy. Here, the woman having the baby is routinely referred to only as “surrogate” or “gestational carrier,” as though this most intimate of embodied relationships were nothing more than an impersonal manufacturing process.
What happens when you don’t need a woman’s genetic material at all? This would take us all the way back to a pre-Christian view of the sexes, notoriously expressed by Aristotle, and challenged more recently by feminist readers: that the formal cause of new life is all male, while the woman provides only the subordinate, inferior material cause. In-vitro gametogenesis employing genetic material from two men plus the “gestational services” of a woman would render this literally true.
Fairer Disputations recently hosted a symposium on Louise Perry’s contention that “We Are Repaganizing,” a phenomenon that she argues undermines not only Christian public norms but also, by extension, those feminist and secular liberal ideals that rest on Christian-inflected moral priors. As Nadya Williams recently pointed out, is this not the first way cutting-edge technologies have re-opened the door to ancient ways of erasing motherhood. But a tech-enabled male recapture of reproductive formal cause would represent a subtle but far-reaching case in point.
Does liberal feminism have the conceptual headroom to challenge repro-paganization, though? That remains to be seen. For if we look closer, this oncoming collision between the feminist desire to defend women’s genetic role in fertility, and the progressive desire to advance LGBTQ equality, is only the tip of an iceberg of contradictions exposed by repro-tech. And more significant and salient yet than the conflict between feminism and gay equality in this domain is what we might term the abortion-oppression-eugenics trilemma: a conflict that leaves even those currently opposed to IVG on progressive grounds fatally hamstrung in their objections.
The Abortion-Oppression-Eugenics Trilemma
That trilemma unpacks as follows. As I argue in Feminism Against Progress, the cornerstone of liberal feminism—especially since the sexual revolution—is the use of technology to flatten or eliminate sex asymmetries, in the name of freedom and equality. As Erika Bachiochi has shown, the legalization of abortion definitively affirmed the absolute primacy of these measures over any obligation to a vulnerable other. Freedom and equality come first, even if the price is a human life. In the aftermath of this legal and cultural shift, as Bachiochi argues, it has become commonplace among progressive legal, political, and feminist commentators to frame this absolute right to freedom from embodied, sex-specific obligations as the cornerstone of women’s personhood.
One necessary consequence of this is that the pursuit of freedom and equality on these terms obliges progressives to minimize or outright deny the personhood of unborn babies: a move Perry points to as a definitive break with Christian presumptions of universal personhood entrenched for centuries. The mechanism for doing so is, by and large, dehumanizing descriptions of the child in in utero as a mere “clump of cells” or perhaps a “parasite.” Few are as intellectually honest or rhetorically unflinching as Sophie Lewis, who acknowledges cheerfully that “Abortion involves killing—and that’s OK!” Instead, as Perry notes, for the most part, the liberal-feminist project of institutionalizing concern for the vulnerable coexists awkwardly with an adamant defense of women’s right to kill the most vulnerable demographic of all, in pursuit of their own personhood.
But if unborn babies really are “just a clump of cells,” then there is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t conduct experimental embryo research. Back in 2012, when IVG technology was only on the horizon, the philosopher Robert Sparrow envisaged cultural resistance to the experimental possibilities opened up by lab-grown embryos, from those still committed to policies grounded in universal personhood. He also envisaged commercial and political pressure to permit such experimentation, in the name of compassionate goals such as infertility treatment.
But as Sparrow points out, this also opens the door to IVG experimentation for other purposes, including in-vitro eugenics. This prospect is now in full view. In her 2022 book Future Superhuman, for example, the transhumanist writer Elise Bohan shows that IVG heralds a world in which hundreds of embryos may be created and genetically profiled, enabling both the elimination of genetic disorders and—as she acknowledges—likely also “more deliberate trait selection.”
According to the New Yorker, Conception co-founder Matt Krisiloff is in a relationship with Lucas Harrington, the founder of Mammoth Biosciences, a biotech startup that focuses on the gene-editing technology CRISPR. Who knows what future synergies these two might envisage together, between their respective startups. As Bohan notes, futurists such as Nick Bostrom have already proposed that IVG might beneficially be used for “iterated embryo selection.” That is, synthetic embryos could be created, stem cells harvested from those with favorable genetic traits for the creation of new synthetic gametes, and so on, in rapid iteration, with the aim of strengthening a specific genetic trait. Bostrom imagines that this might accomplish “ten or more generations of selection in just a few years.” It would be logical to add CRISPR to the toolbox as well.
If Embryos Aren’t Persons, What’s Wrong with Eugenics?
At this point, even tech-positive secular liberals may be shifting uncomfortably. Indeed, progressive thinkers such as Marcy Darnovsky of Berkeley’s Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) are already warning that such research re-opens the door to eugenics. For decades now, the Left has decried eugenic practices as morally beyond the pale, whether they take the form of Nazi atrocities or America’s own homegrown tradition of forcibly sterilizing impoverished, minority, and disabled women in the name of “improving the race.”
It’s not clear, though, that eugenics will remain beyond the pale. For those liberals whose politics valorizes care for the vulnerable, the core of revulsion at historic eugenic policies was the violence such practices did to living men and women through measures such as forced sterilization or the murder of genetically “defective” individuals.
Today, though, eugenics advocates might argue that such obviously problematic measures are is no longer needed. Technologies such as IVG afford scope for genetic tinkering without touching a hair on anyone’s head. Where such techniques could be used (for example) to eliminate genetic diseases, or “improve” the human genome by selecting for higher IQ, and this could be accomplished without doing violence to a human person, what’s the problem?
From a perspective that grants universal personhood, the problem is obvious: such technologies still do violence to human individuals. If human life begins at conception, conceiving new people only to harvest their genetic material and kill them before propagating a new generation is self-evidently monstrous. But from a progressive vantage-point, the question of universal personhood is already not just conceded but vociferously denied, in the name of women’s right to autonomy at any price. On what basis, then, may we object to in-vitro embryonic creation, experimentation, editing, re-creation, and euthanization? Why should billions of embryos not die, in pursuit of human enhancement? Countless embryos already do, after all, in the multi-billion-dollar IVF industry.
Marcy Darnovsky argues that eugenic reprotech practices risk intensifying racism, ableism, and other forms of injustice and discrimination. While this is likely true, absent the claim of universal personhood it can be weighed only against arguments in favor of employing such techniques to protect the vulnerable from biological detriments such as congenital illness. This is far from a slam-dunk argument. Speaking to science publication Labiotech recently, CGS’ Katie Hasson nearly lands on the far more robust one, when she points to the risk, in the course of developing the technology, of inducing harmful genetic mutations. Here Hasson underlines the gravity of doing, by referencing the experimental subjects’ personhood: “Ultimately,” she argues, “we have to remember that the results of these risky experiments would be babies, human beings.”
Well, yes. But this position is critically undermined by the keystone dogma common to most liberal feminism since the 1960s: an outright refusal to view embryos as human beings, as people. As such, where IVG is concerned, progressivism faces a trilemma. If universal personhood is conceded in the name of protecting all vulnerable people, abortion is untenable. But this would be to abandon a crucial cornerstone for the whole modern progressive project: the right to pursue sameness via technology. Conversely, though, if universal personhood is rejected, we are left only with relatively weak secondary objections to eugenics—especially if what we oppose is eugenics of a hygienic kind, whose victims are “clumps of cells” whose humanity has already been foreclosed.
Something will have to give. My hunch is that it will be the Christian residue in mainstream secular liberalism—the one that continues to insist on the moral importance of protecting the vulnerable. There are, after all, other frameworks that may be mobilized to legitimize the onward march of biotech than a desire to use its power to make life better for the weak.
Progressive causes such as “fertility equality” can be used as moral battering-rams to legitimize the rush for scientific mastery of life—provided lip-service is also paid to worries about eugenic externalities. But where biotech is concerned, the internal contradictions in this stance are so far-reaching that we should expect it to give way in due course to a set of norms that are far more overtly post-Christian in selective ascription of personhood, and unabashed valorization of the strong.
Should this take place, the retrieval of pagan sexism via technology really will only be the tip of the iceberg. We will have discovered, perhaps already too late, that technologies developed to bring about heaven on earth instead precipitated the return of the old gods.