Does the end justify the means for a new in vitro technology?

The problems with in vitro gametogenesis

September 4, 2019

The movie “Jurassic Park” contains many memorable lines, but perhaps none as haunting as when mathematician Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) declares, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” 

There might have been a time in the history of science where the “should we?” question was less important than it is today, but in our age we cannot afford to neglect it. We can do many more things than we should.

A new way to make a baby

If one considers all the possible genetic and social permutations—including the future possibility of human cloning—I reckon that there are about 38 ways to make a baby. There is the old fashioned way where the biological parents are also the social parents, and there are more exotic ways like one man, one woman, someone else’s sperm and someone else’s egg, in vitro fertilization, and a surrogate who will carry the baby to term. 

Now researchers in Japan hope to add a 39th way, in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). If successfully developed, the technique would allow an individual to make human sperm and/or eggs from skin cells. Then, using IVF, egg and sperm could be united and the reproductive process could continue either in the uterus of a biological mom or a surrogate.

Should we do this?

Can we do this? Why not? The science seems fairly straightforward. And it’s already being done with limited success in mice. Should we do this? That’s a much more complicated question. 

There might have been a time in the history of science where the “should we?” question was less important than it is today, but in our age we cannot afford to neglect it.

First, even if it’s possible in mice, it would be unethical to run clinical trials with human subjects. The first principle of medical ethics is primum non nocere (first, do no harm). According to the canons of ethical research, generally speaking, scientific experiments on children where there is the potential for harm may only be performed if doing so may benefit the child directly. Typically, that would mean that a child would have a particular disease or life-threatening condition such that clinical experiments might save the child’s life. One child should not be subjected to harm—especially potentially lethal harm—even to save another, since children are not able to assess the risks and consent for themselves to be research subjects.

If this new reproductive technology were developed in mice, it would still be unethical to run those experiments in humans because the risk to developing human embryos would be too great. What if the experiments end up creating genetic anomalies? What if the experiments end up killing the human subject? If embryos already existed, there might be justification to run experiments for therapeutic and curative reasons. But there is no morally justifiable reason to bring a human embryo into existence just for the purposes of running risky experiments.

This is a version of the means/end problem. Even if the end—giving birth to a healthy human baby—is justifiable, the means may not be ethical. For example, just because one person needs a heart transplant doesn’t make it ethical to kill someone else to provide that new heart. The end does not justify the means. The murder of an innocent human being is not even justified to save a nation. To argue otherwise is to commit oneself to a utilitarian calculus that ends up justifying harms like American chattel slavery, where the enslavement of the minority is justified for the economic benefit of the majority. The imposition of significant risks to innocent, nonconsenting individuals cannot be justified even for public goods. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments are written into the fabric of contemporary research ethics for just such a reason. 

Likewise, we should stop and think about this new reproductive technology. In light of all the risks of IVG, the end doesn’t justify the means. Just because we could do this one day, doesn’t mean we should. 

C. Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In 2020, he served as a member of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board. Read More