Andrew Fiala

Should grandmothers be surrogate birth mothers? Ethics lag reproductive technology

In this March 25, 2019 photo, Cecile Eledge smiles after delivering her grandchild at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. Eledge volunteered to be the surrogate mother to her grandchild, conceived with sperm from her son Matthew Eledge and an egg from Lea Yribe, the sister of Matthew Eledge’s husband, Elliot Dougherty.
In this March 25, 2019 photo, Cecile Eledge smiles after delivering her grandchild at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. Eledge volunteered to be the surrogate mother to her grandchild, conceived with sperm from her son Matthew Eledge and an egg from Lea Yribe, the sister of Matthew Eledge’s husband, Elliot Dougherty. AP

The birds and the bees have gone high tech. We are entering a brave, new world of reproduction. Some will applaud the new ways we can make babies. Others will worry about a slippery slope to procreative chaos.

Consider the case of a Nebraska grandmother who gave birth to her own granddaughter. Cecile Eledge provided gestational surrogacy for her son and his husband. The child she birthed was created with her son’s sperm and an egg donated by his husband’s sister. The family appears to be thrilled to welcome a new child into the world.

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Andrew Fiala

Another remarkable fact about Ms. Eledge is that she is 61 years old. New technologies allow post-menopausal women to give birth. CBS News reported in 2016 that a 70-year old woman — whose husband is 79 — gave birth in India.

And that’s not all. The gametes of dead people have been retrieved for reproductive purposes. Recently after a tragic accident at West Point, the parents of a brain-dead cadet obtained his sperm, hoping to use it to create a grandchild. A couple of years ago, a British woman got legal permission to fertilize and gestate the frozen eggs of her dead daughter.

In routine organ donation, consent is required. But there is no box to check on your driver’s license for sperm and eggs. It is understandable, perhaps, that a spouse would want to give birth to the genetic offspring of a dead husband or wife. But do the parents of a dead person have the right to their child’s genetic material?

New reproductive technologies challenge our presumptions about sex, identity, and reproduction. It is an amazing wonder of technology that non-fertile people can make babies. But these technological feats create new complexities. A child can have many “parents.” She could be conceived from a sperm donor, an egg donor, and a gestational surrogate, while being raised by her legal parents. Scientists have also developed a technique that uses a donor egg to host the nuclear DNA of another women in order to avoid mitochondrial diseases—in so-called three-parent conception.

We can also screen embryos in order to avoid disease or select a baby’s sex. And last year, scientists in China used CRISPR gene editing technology to genetically engineer babies. Scientists in China have also successfully cloned macaque monkeys. It seems inevitable that someday someone will clone a human being. A likely scenario involves grieving parents who want to preserve the genetic identity of a deceased child.

Is the reproductive revolution an audacious accomplishment of science to be celebrated? Or is this a Frankenstein scenario in which scientific hubris runs amok?

Conservatives will say that these new technologies disregard nature and tradition. The natural law theory of ethics is generally opposed to artificial reproduction as well as to same-sex marriage and abortion. It fears the slippery slope. The natural law theory might suggest that the problem created by grandmothers who use their children’s gametes to reproduce is that this seems close to incest.

But on the other hand, progressives and libertarians will say that as long as everyone consents and everyone is happy, then there is nothing wrong. The children created in these ways will be loved by families who go to great lengths to conceive them. Genetic intervention and selection seek to avoid harm and create healthy children. On this view, the new technologies are benign and life-affirming, since they allow people to procreate who were previously unable to do so.

The reproductive genie is already out of the bottle. Cloning remains nearly universally prohibited. But a variety of alternative reproductive strategies are already available to those who are willing to pay for them. Our ethical and legal judgments need to catch up with our technical prowess.

One important first step is to have conversations with your own friends and family about who has a right to your gametes and what you think about the new ways that humans reproduce. Families ought to have frank discussions about organ donation and end-of-life care. And now, after we have a conversation about the birds and the bees, we should also discuss the possibility of posthumous reproduction and a variety of other weird and wonderful ways to make babies.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala
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