I normally don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about my sperm.
But recently a team of scientists announced they had made artificial sperm from human bone marrow, and media reports abounded with the dire news that my goodfellas (and by extension, me) had been rendered unnecessary.
If a woman chose to do so, speculated tabloid journalists, she could make sperm from her own bone marrow, fertilize another woman’s egg — and voila!
“Men could be completely sidelined,” according to Britain’s Daily Mail.
“Women to Self Create,” blared the headline in Australia’s Daily Telegraph.
“Men beware!” began a story on one U.S. news Web site.
There are at least half a dozen reasons why such speculation is silly, some scientific and some practical. For example, as long as sex feels good and remains no more expensive than dinner and a bottle of wine, most people will use natural-grown sperm.
Still, suggests Gregory Stock, director of the program on medicine, society and technology at the UCLA School of Medicine and the CEO of a biotech company called Signum Biosciences, it is very interesting that there were any stories at all. Experiments have created eggs and sperm, so-called artificial gametes, from embryonic stem cells and other cell types for years now with limited success, so the bone marrow work does not represent a giant leap. And the stories are reminiscent of some that were printed 10 years ago when the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was announced. We men were declared washed up then, too.
Stock, author of the book “Redesigning Humans,” believes there were so many stories recently because such experiments are as much symbol as science. “The importance is just the idea of two women having a child, one creating sperm and other having an oocyte [egg]. Well, what does that say about marriage laws? About whether men are needed? There are all sorts of ways that play into our psyche, who and what we are, what relationships are all about, the limits of the technological vision of ourselves.”
I just want to know why you women are in such a rush to get rid of us. Sci-fi and fantasy literature are full of all-female societies like Wonder Woman’s home island. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd penned a friendly little book in 2005 called “Are Men Necessary?” Are you trying to give us a complex or something?
A world without our sperm
So permit me to run with the tabloid visionaries and see where men wind up in a world that does not need our sperm because you ladies are out there making them on your own.
Hmmm. In the near term, men may not be much different than the present. “The concept here that resonates with people is the idea of men not being necessary in some way,” Stock suggests. “But men are not really necessary at this point either.”
Well, strictly in terms of keeping the human species alive, you women need some of us. You just don’t need all that many of us (though we would prefer to keep that under our hats, if we wore hats). We make a glut of sperm, millions of them, so one man can spread a lot of seed.
Sperm banking has long been an important part of in vitro fertilization, just as bull semen is integral to dairy production. Frankly, you only need a small tribe of us guys equipped with porn magazines and plastic cups. You could feed us, groom us and give us a little exercise — pretty much like you do now.
Since sperm has already been made from embryonic stem cells, “it is easy to see how stem cells could go from just being used for research purposes to being used to have kids,” suggests David Magnus, director of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics. “Of course you have the dilemma of needing human experiments but looking at the history [of IVF], that hasn’t stopped people and so far it has worked out pretty well.”
So let’s assume stem cells are used to treat couples lacking sperm, and then to provide lesbian couples with sperm that are genetically theirs, and then a few heterosexual women say, “Who needs men?”
Once a worldwide network of stem cell banks is established (already starting, by the way), the raw material represented by the cells could be used to make any kind of cell in the body, including sperm. Catalogs could be produced the way listings of sperm donors are created now, outlining features and benefits. Women could make a toll-free call.
Stag colonies of men eating Doritos?
Being a man, I will assume that most women would prefer to give birth to female babies, girls being far more competent, intelligent and with less propensity to crash motorcycles. Two hundred years from now, a few isolated stag colonies are inhabited by men who have mutated to survive solely on Doritos. Male language has been reduced to a single word: “Wassup!”
As a guy, I’m not sure that sounds all bad. I like Doritos, and I would no longer pay taxes or shout at my TV when I see certain politicians. The world’s problems would be somebody else’s burden.
Have at it, ladies!
Of course, I don’t really expect to find myself living on Doritos in North Dakota, but someday soon, bone marrow or some other cell type may well be used to create usable sperm, something that could be a tremendous therapy for men suffering from azoospermia — and so lack sperm of their own. Other future technologies like synthetically created genomes, artificial chromosomes and manufactured cells also may be used as part of reproductive services.
And if any of this ever comes to pass, we are going to have to make conceptual adjustments because such developments will further change an already changing outlook on culture and on what it means to reproduce.
“The biggest development in reproductive biology is the birth-control pill,” Stock says. “Nobody ever talks about it, but look at the consequences: demographics; aging populations; the sinking population of Europe, Japan; immigration. It’s incredible.”
Women may not be so essential, either
Men will likely stick around for a very long time, but Stanford’s Magnus agrees that we will all have to adapt to new technologies, probably by divorcing sperm, egg and genes from the way we think of children. “I think what we really need is to do a better job of telling cultural stories to ourselves about what it means to be a family and have children. What does ‘having children’ mean in a technological age?”
This is a real question for women, too. Eggs have been created in labs, and though we still need your wombs to make a baby, research into “exogenesis” — gestating a “baby in a bottle” — is in its infancy. Roger Gosden, an IVF pioneer, favors the research.
“The arrival of exogenesis would probably herald a host of new opportunities for our species — social as well as biological,” he declares in his book “Designing Babies.”
So ladies, laugh it up while you can because once those artificial eggs and the artificial womb hit the market, you’ll be buying your own dinners at Chez Francoise.
Brian Alexander, MSNBC's Sexploration columnist, is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health.