Skip to main content

Reproduction without sex, a liberating future

By Aarathi Prasad, Special to CNN
updated 4:11 PM EST, Thu December 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aarathi Prasad: Scientists are making progress in techniques for reproducing life without sex
  • Experiments show that sperm and eggs can be generated from male stem cells, she says
  • People will have more choices about when and how to have children, Prasad says
  • Prasad: Science could help free people from tough choices between work and family

Editor's note: Aarathi Prasad is a London-based biologist and science writer and the author of "Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex".

(CNN) -- Last year on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the contraceptive pill its inventor Carl Djerassi spoke of the coming dramatic changes to reproductive options -- of the technologies that will have just as big an impact on society in the 50 years to come.

After sex without reproduction, reproduction without sex.

In an article in the UK's "traditional values" tabloid, the Daily Mail, titled "A Terrifying Future for Female Fertility," Djerassi said, "There are an enormous number of well-educated, proficient women who, when facing the biological clock, first pay attention to their professional ambitions...in the next 20 years, more young people will freeze their eggs and [sperm] in their 20s, and bank them for later use. They will do away with the need for contraception by being sterilised, and withdraw their eggs and sperm from the bank when they are ready to have a child via IVF."

Aarathi Prasad
Aarathi Prasad

That is certainly one option as we develop greater capabilities to store eggs more reliably and safely so that they are not damaged by the freezing/thawing process meant to preserve them. But in the next 20 years, there could be other developments on their way to the clinic. For example -- also to avert damage -- freezing strips of ovarian tissue instead of eggs, or tapping into recently identified reserves of ovarian stem cells that could be turned into a fresh supply of eggs for a woman, at any age; or even creating to order eggs (or sperm) from skin or bone marrow stem cells of men and women.

Early experiments with mice have shown that both sperm and eggs can be generated from the stem cells of males, and eggs from that of females, and that they can be fertilized to produce viable young.

Djerassi described the idea of being able to access healthy eggs later in life as something set to be a fundamental tool of family planning, and one that will empower women just as the pill has. He talked of female colleagues on tough career trajectories just at the time in their life when they are most fertile, and then on into the years leading into sterility.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It's no coincidence in the decade of our life when we are most biologically capable of reproducing, men and women are also working full steam on their studies or on building their careers. In our 30s, fertility declines - after 35, exponentially so -- and specifically for women. Around age 50, while the rest of our faculties continue functioning beautifully, the ability to reproduce comes to an abrupt stop.

There have recently been a spate of reports and discussions about equality -- the dearth of women in science, on the boards of top companies and of the pay gap that has yet to be bridged, but it is not clear that those taking part in this discussion fully appreciate that in pursuing in parallel the fulfilling goals of education, work and having a family, we are limited by both social and biological barriers.

In achieving the hoped-for 40% of leadership positions being held by women, executive bodies like the European Commission and governments could, for example, legislate interventions like free or cheap childcare in all workplaces.

However, only technology can tackle the biological brick wall of menopause, with all its detrimental effects on a woman's health, and especially at a time when she is likely to live another 50 years in this condition.

In the quest for reproduction, only technology can give same-sex couples the chance of having their own genetic children. If eggs can be made from the stem cells of men, with the advent of an artificial womb (already in use for sharks, in development with mammals and projected to be in use for humans within 100 years), it will also give them an organ they currently have to pay surrogate mothers for the use of.

So if it is to be the egalitarian society that we hope to see for ourselves and our children -- particularly our daughters, and those whose relationships and family choices still find themselves the topic of social and religious debate -- then technology that gives an individual the capability to generate healthy eggs and sperm from his/her own body and allows a baby to be gestated independently could offer us a more ethical option than what we do today.

In our world, girls study just as hard as boys but face far more difficult choices once in the workplace. To make money, poor women from countries like India or the Ukraine "donate" eggs or their wombs, or churches refuse to marry gay couples because they cannot be fruitful and multiply.

Freedom, power, choice? It's the alternative that sounds terrifying to me.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aarathi Prasad.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT