Should reproductive technology be inevitable?

Alan Kadish, M.D., president of the Touro College and University System. Photograph by William Taufic.

Recently, Alan Kadish, M.D., and John D. Loike, Ph.D., co-authored an article in The Scientist magazine about the medical and ethical limits of such reproductive technologies as cloning and parthenogenesis (the creation of an organism, almost always female, from an unfertilized egg, from the Greek meaning “virgin creation”). Beyond ethics and medicine, these technologies – aided by the gene-editing technology CRISPR – could have wider implications for the anti-abortion and pro-choice movements, the transgender community and nonbinary identity as well as for the future of men, since cloning and parthenogenesis obviate the need for sperm, and for the technology itself.  

Alan Kadish, M.D., is president of the Touro College and University System, the largest Jewish-sponsored educational institution in the United States, which includes New York Medical College in Valhalla and the Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College. Prior to becoming Touro’s second president in 2010, he carved a path as a cardiologist, teacher, researcher and administrator. 

John D. Loike, Ph.D., interim director of the Master of Science degree and the graduate certificate program in medical ethics and humanities at Lander College of Arts & Sciences, New York Medical College. Photograph by Dmitriy Kalinin.

John Loike, Ph.D., is interim director of the Master of Science degree and the graduate certificate program in medical ethics and humanities at Lander College of Arts & Sciences, New York Medical College. His many published articles deal with bioethics from a Jewish perspective.  

We asked them to respond to a few questions about the article. Loike, the lead writer on it, answered:  

Your thought-provoking piece on the cutting-edge reproductive technologies cloning and parthenogenesis notes that “just because we can, does not mean we should.” What are the medical as well as ethical pitfalls of these technologies for the plant and animal kingdoms as well as humans? 

“In the plant and animal kingdoms, several species naturally replicate via parthenogenesis or via cloning. Thus, the moral ramifications from both an evolutionary and biological perspective are not as serious as with human reproduction that employs sexual reproduction. It is scientifically significant that humans, as a viable species, continue to replicate via sexual reproduction. In the case of infertile couples, we have developed innovative therapies to help them produce healthy children. If parthenogenesis technology can provide a new avenue to help these infertile couples, then we should reconsider its application. Regarding its applications to animal and plant science, scientists must take into consideration the risk-benefits of modifying plants or animals. Note, for example, that Europe does not allow genetically modified organisms in its foods.” 

How then should cloning and pathogenesis be used? 

“Simply stated, as a research tool in the laboratory.”  

In the recent case of a parthenogenetic mouse pup, to which your article refers, CRISPR — the gene-editing technology — was also used. Some ethicists and other critics fear that CRISPR would lead scientists to “play God” by in effect redesigning species, including humans; and causing one disease while curing another. Explain CRISPR and its benefits.  

“CRISPR – or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – technology is more than merely a gene-editing technology as originally proposed. CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing takes advantage of a bacterial CRISPR-Cas system to modify a genome in a targeted manner. Guided by an RNA sequence, the Cas9 enzyme breaks DNA at a specific site. Normally, cellular repair of these breaks is imprecise in fixing them.  

“However, with CRISPR, humankind now has the power to rewrite the sequences of at least small regions of the genome. Cellular repair pathways can be engineered to introduce correct mutations or insert new or corrected genes. There are now many potential applications using this technology in diagnosing diseases, in medical treatments, in organ transplantation, in animal breeding and in agriculture (to decrease pollution in animal and plant breeding and to generate foods that last longer and are more nutritious).” 

Bottom line, reproductive technology would ultimately obviate the need for sperm. Some doctors and scientific articles have already argued that you could eliminate every man from the planet and still continue the human race. Given this, the continuing shrinkage of the Y chromosome and the phenomenon of women outnumbering men in U.S. colleges and professional schools, including medical schools – although women are still highly vulnerable in the labor force, as the pandemic demonstrated — what does reproductive technology say about the Darwinian future of men? 

Scientific research is based on generating a hypothesis and providing real evidence that either supports or negates the hypothesis. Scientists should be careful in speculating without experimentation. Thus, it is difficult for me to speculate what the shrinkage of the Y chromosome means from a biological or evolutionary perspective.  

“On the other hand, the enhanced and important roles that women play in our colleges and professional schools as well as in all careers highlight a welcomed outcome of our human moral compass.” 

What are the implications of such technology for the anti-abortion and pro-choice movements as well as for the transgender community and a world that may increasingly define itself as nonbinary (neither male nor female)? 

“This topic is too complex to discuss in a short paragraph but deserves to be addressed by our society, government officials, scientists and ethicists.”  

 Finally, given that the technology already exists and the declining birth rates in countries like Japan, is it inevitable that cloning and parthenogenesis will be used to repopulate the world? 

 “Again, it is hard to speculate. The lower birth rates in many countries are based on sociological not necessarily biological factors. History has shown that societies can choose to repopulate or to limit birth rates. Thankfully, we have established exciting biotechnologies to assist infertile couples. For example, more than seven million babies have been born using IVF (in vitro fertilization) technologies.  I heard a great quote worth repeating: ‘Science is what we presume. Truth can turn out to be something different or unexpected.’” 

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