Gay and lesbian couples may one day be able to have children that share both of their genetic make up.
On June 20, at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) in Copenhagen, scientists announced a development in stem cell research that could allow gay couples to have children that share both of their genetic make-up, instead of just one partner sharing a genetic link.
Researchers discovered that they could develop primordial germ cells (PGC) from embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are the master cells of the body, appearing when embryos are just a few days old and developing into every type of cell and tissue in the body, including sperm and eggs.
PCGs are present during the fetal stage and then develop into either sperm or eggs. By gaining the ability to engineer changes in the PCGs, scientists could develop an egg from the PCGs of a man wishing to pair his genetic material with his partner’s sperm. Similarly, a woman’s PCG could be developed into sperm cells that could be used to fertilize her partner’s eggs. In either case, a unique embryo could then naturally form with the genetics of both same-sex partners.
The technique, announced at ESHRE in June, was discovered by scientists at the University of Sheffield in England. However, research on this is being done all over the world. Dr. Richard Scott, medical director of Reproductive Medicine Associates in New Jersey, and his team of researchers are studying how an egg and sperm that have been engineered from this approach can grow into an embryo.
“Once we have the right amount of genetic material, we are interested in finding out how to get those genes to develop normally, he told Gay City News. “Our group wants to understand what resets the genetic code to make it a person.”
The research that Scott and his team and others are doing also has the potential to help avoid certain types of genetic diseases.
On the reproductive front, this discovery could have far-reaching implications not only for the gay community, but also for parents who are having trouble conceiving, single parents, and women who want to have children after menopause. This discovery could essentially redefine the parameters of parenthood. Gay male could have children using their own sperm, an engineered egg, and the assistance of a surrogate mother to carry the fetus to term, and women could continue to have children well after menopause.
However, scientists cautioned that this development is a long way off and they still have to prove that it is safe.
“I think in the next three to five years we could see children come out of this discovery, if the research continues to progress at this pace,” Scott said.
With that said, he cautioned people not to plan their families around this technology because its future is so uncertain.
The hurdles related to this new technology may prove more difficult on the legal and cultural fronts than in the science. Laws in the United States prohibit nuclear transfer, a process that would have to be done to enable this new reproductive technology. In a nuclear transfer, scientists remove the nucleus from an egg, and they replace it with the nucleus of an older donor cell. Scott explained that “people are afraid of cloning so legislators have put very broad restrictions on things in the crossfire of all the debate over it.”
The repercussions of laws that prevent cloning have often stagnated scientific research in other areas.
The similarity to cloning is the ethical concern that first comes to mind for some considering this new frontier of science. Scott is clear, however, that this technique is not the same, or even similar to cloning.
“When you clone a cell, the embryo that results is exactly like the parent cell; there aren’t two people involved, as there are in this procedure,” he explained This process allows for all the natural variation that occurs with traditional conception—cloning does not. Scott acknowledged that people get “appropriately nervous about cloning versus letting nature decide what genes a baby get. However, there is randomness to this process, whereas cloning is taking the exact replica.”
The greater freedom this new technology could offer gay and lesbian couples in thinking about their families may well alleviate stresses currently facing them. Dr. Andrea Mechanic Braverman, the director of psychology and complementary care at RMA in New Jersey, said that gay and lesbian couples often have to “deal with the issue of not being a genetic partner and that can be tough for that parent.” The hope is that this new discovery could alleviate that component of stress for gay and lesbian couples starting families.
Whatever stress in involved in family-building for gay and lesbian couples, there have never been more gay and lesbian couples taking the plunge. Melissa Brisman, an attorney in New Jersey specializing in reproductive rights, said she has easily seen a 400 to 500 percent increase in the number of same-sex couples looking to have a family and seeking her legal counsel. While this new discovery might eventually make it possible for both parents to have a genetic tie to their child, it does not circumvent many of the legal issues. In fact, this may be a case the law may will likely have to catch up to science.
In New York State when a lesbian couple decides to have a baby, and one partner carries the child, naming the other partner as a legal parent requires a court-hearing and a criminal background check.
“Only the woman who gives birth is the legal parent,” Brisman explained. The laws, however, vary by state. “Even if the woman contributed a sperm instead of an egg, she still can’t go on a birth certificate without a second parent adoption,” under current law. If both parents had a genetic link to the child, however, a compelling case could be made that the current legal approach is in need of major overhaul.
Braverman, considering that she was talking to a gay newspaper, went a bit out on the limb, noting, “These are kids who aren’t going to have a genetic mother and father and we don’t how they are going to react to that. Many could see it as that they have two loving parents and it’s not big deal, or it could have adverse effects. We just don’t know.”
Scott is less worried about any potential adverse effects, reflecting the findings of most studies of children raised by same-sex couples.
“This is a highly, highly motivated group of individuals who want children,” he said. “People are going to take care of their kids if they really want them.”
Even as reproductive technology for gay parenting advances on the research front, the LGBT Community Center this week hosts two gatherings on the current state of same-sex parenting. On Saturday, September 10, “Gay Men and Reproductive Choice,” sponsored by Center Kids, will explore the legal rights and parenting options couples have, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. On Sunday, September 11 at 11 a.m., Circle Surrogacy, a leading surrogacy agency, hosts a reunion of gay families formed through the help of surrogate mothers. Both events are at 208 West 13th Street.