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'Two Dad' Babies on the Horizon?

By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
June 21, 2005

(CNSNews.com) - The spectre of a baby being born with DNA from two men has edged a little closer, with news from a scientific conference in Europe that embryonic stem calls can be manipulated in a lab to form the precursors of sperm and eggs.

In theory, the finding means that in the future a child could be created using the genes of two homosexuals - the sperm of one, and an egg engineered from the stem cells of the other.

It also could theoretically enable a single man to have a child -- a clone -- using his sperm and a synthetic egg created in the lab from his own genetic material. Similarly, a woman could have a cloned baby using her own egg and artificial sperm created from her own cells.

Physical barriers that now prevent homosexuals, infertile couples, older women or even single people from having their own genetic children could therefore fall away.

The news was announced Monday at a European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Scientists from Britain's University of Sheffield said they had proved for the first time the ability of human embryonic stem cells (ESC) to form the "primordial germ cells" that eventually become eggs and sperm.

The team leader, Prof. Harry Moore, said the goal was probably ten years away. "We have a lot more work to do, and we have to prove it is safe."

The ability to create synthetic eggs and sperm would also enable scientists to form new embryos and harvest their stem cells for research, without having to rely on egg donors, "a major limitation of this technique at the moment," Moore said in a statement released by ESHRE.

Scientists will then have "completed the circle," having made ESCs from eggs that were made from ESCs.

The science of ESC research is already hugely controversial because early-stage human embryos are destroyed for their stem cells, which researchers hope may one day be used to treat diseases.

South Korean scientists recently announced they had successfully produced ESC lines from cloned human embryos. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are mulling legislation that would lift President Bush's restriction on federal funding for ESC research.

If technical barriers are overcome, the latest development announced by the British researchers could help infertile couples whose ovaries or testes may have been damaged in some way, enabling them to have children.

But it also opens the possibility of a baby being born with "two dads," or in other unorthodox household situations, raising further ethical questions.

"This is moving the argument beyond what you do with the embryo," Dr. David van Gend of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life said Tuesday. "It's about what you can do with those cells once you've abused the embryo."

"You first violate the little embryos, who are mere material for the consumption of science, then on top of that the human family is further violated by making possible this unnatural situation where a little child ... will never have the possibility of having a mom and a dad," he said in a phone interview.

"It's the violation of naturalness that is at stake, the violation of the sane, natural structure of the mammalian family - mom, dad and kids - that is so central to the development of any child."

Van Gend said a baby created in this way and born into such a household would have to deal with "the profound and unexplored emotional consequences of that sort of experiment on their development - that's why it's wrong."

Legal hurdles

Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a leading Australian ethicist, said Tuesday that even in the future event of two homosexuals producing a child in the way described, they would still need the services of a surrogate mother to carry the baby to term.

This would raise legal issues in some countries, such as Australia, where courts had tended to make the interests of the child dominant.

"The woman who gives birth to the child is the mother of the child, in our law, irrespective of what the genes are. The consenting spouse is the father of the child, however it was achieved."

If the birth mother relinquishes her claim, he said, then it's left to the courts to decide what is in the child's best interests.

Tonti-Filippini recalled one Australian case some 20 years ago in which a woman had carried and given birth to the artificially-inseminated child of her brother's homosexual partner.

The woman then handed over the newborn, and the two men went to court seeking legal parental rights.

But the court - which ordinarily would have ruled in favor of the mother -- decided that the mother had effectively relinquished her claim, and ordered that the child be put up for adoption, he said.

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