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  • The Redundant Male?
  • By Melanie Phillips
  • Daily Mail
  • 12/07/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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Her name was Frances Swiney, a feminist whose vision for the sisterhood and humanity was more than a trifle extreme.

She thought men were the waste products of the reproductive process and wanted them eliminated. Her ideal method was asexual reproduction - the creation of children without a man involved. That way, she thought, women could look forward to the 'gradual extinction of the distinctive male organism and the assimilation of the male to the female'. Until now, people like Mrs Swiney, who lived in the 19th century, were considered to be several apples short of a picnic. But now her vision of a female-only world is all but with us.

Sorry to tell you, men, but you are shortly to be declared redundant, superfluous to the requirements of the human race, written out of the reproductive script. Cheerio and please close the door behind you on your way out of history.

At least this is the prospect laid out before us by the latest lurch into the brave new world of medical research. In the attempt to find a cure for male infertility, a Newcastle University biologist, Karim Nayernia, has succeeded in using artificially produced sperm to fertilise mouse eggs.

He removed stem cells from mouse embryos and coaxed them into developing into sperm, which was used to fertilise eggs transplanted into female mice, resulting in the birth of seven baby rodents. Professor Nayernia believes his work offers hope to men whose lives are blighted by their inability to father children. However, the rest of us might wonder whether he is sounding the death knell for fatherhood altogether - and, more to the point, threatening to undermine the very basis of what it is to be human.

The success of these experiments opens up a number of possibilities. One is to extract stem cells from an infertile man and use these to grow sperm in a laboratory. These could then be transplanted back into the man's testicles, enabling him to procreate in the normal way. That at least - despite the awesome safety issues to be overcome - would retain the man's genetic connection with any child he produced, as well as allowing him to father that baby through a normal sexual union.

But other possibilities are far more problematic. It would become possible, for example, to use stem cells not from the infertile man at all, but from embryos which are routinely produced in IVF clinics, but are then discarded as surplus to requirements. This would mean there would be no genetic connection whatever between 'father' and child.

Moreover, such a process could mean the eggs being fertilised might not even come from the mother of the child being produced. Instead, spare eggs donated by another woman could be fertilised by the artificial sperm. As a result, there might be no genetic connection with either parent. This could mean courtship and sexual love would be replaced by the mating dance of test tubes.

How would a child feel about the fact that one or both of his parents was merely a cluster of randomly selected cells grown artificially in a laboratory? How would he feel, indeed, to know that his parent was a discarded human embryo?

The truth is that having a mother and father is essential to our sense of identity. That's why family disintegration is so harmful to children and why the stampede to produce and bring up children without a biological father around - through artificial insemination by donor, IVF or sperm banks - spells disaster for the future.

Test-tube mating could deliver a terminal blow to the pulverised nuclear family. True, we have already under-mined sexual reproduction and genetic transmission through IVF. But at least the mother in such cases has a powerful biological connection to the baby.

Fatherhood, however, is altogether trickier. Since human babies take years to become independent, they need prolonged care. It is difficult to furnish this while simultaneously providing subsistence and protection. That's why the human male is essential, to protect and nurture the mother and child.

But the male needs a certain amount of cultural coaxing to stick around. And essential to that bargain between the sexes is his certainty that he is the father of the child. While there is no such question mark over motherhood because women bear the baby, fathering, by contrast, is a socially constructed institution. Men have a fragile sense of their role in the human drama. At some deep level, they dread that they are merely an add-on to a female genetic inheritance. As we can see from the epidemic of fatherlessness, it doesn't take much for them to say "I'm off!" if they feel pushed away.

And pushed away they have certainly been. No one bats an eyelid when a woman has a baby without a father on board. Male breadwinning is regarded as an unforgiveable anachronism. Masculine characteristics such as stoicism or emotional restraint are scorned or vilified. And now, men find that their active involvement in the reproductive process might be by-passed altogether.

Currently, it is against British law to create a baby without the need for a man - even if a child can be brought up without one. But considering how all our taboos are being systematically smashed in the interests of fulfilling every desire, can anyone doubt that, if the technological problems can be overcome, medical ethics and the law will be adjusted to suit?

Clearly, these developments have the potential to undermine parenthood and our very understanding of kinship and human identity itself. As so often, the aims are noble - to remedy the suffering of childlessness. But medical research, which invariably takes the amoral view that the end justifies the means, brushes aside the fact that the damage such advances may do to our society might hugely outweigh any benefits they may bring.

Already, the use of discarded embryos has helped brutalise our society by commodifying and cannibalising early human life. And most outlandishly of all, some even claim it is theoretically possible to produce sperm from female cells and eggs from male ones.

This seems frankly absurd. There is no form of higher animal life that has not depended on sexual reproduction. But now that scientists are modern gods, who knows what unnatural developments might become possible? Such a world, where procreation was through asexual reproduction, was the vision of those early feminists, such as Mrs Swiney.

But in their book The Ethics Of Human Cloning, the American thinkers James Q. Wilson and Leon Kass wrote: "Only sexual animals can seek and find complementary others with whom to pursue a goal that transcends their own existence." In other words, sexual reproduction produces the sense of generosity and concern for others on which our human society is built.

The authors also observed that asexual reproduction was found only in the lowest forms of life: bacteria, algae, fungi and some lower invertebrates.

Would it not be an irony if, through their egregious hubris, the effect of the most brilliant scientific minds in the most advanced age known to mankind was to reduce the human race to the status of primordial slime?

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