Why you should care
Because Aarathi Prasad says that our concept of the birds and the bees is outdated.
Aarathi Prasad likes talking about sex—from a uniquely scientific viewpoint. This geneticist travels to the edges of reproductive science to help us conceive of the inconceivable: virgin birth. She’s written a revolutionary book on the subject and is now working to stir debate worldwide.
Prasad believes that after the sex-without-reproduction era, humanity is entering a reproduction-without-sex era. Shocked? People may reject the idea as pure science fiction, but Prasad thinks it’s just a matter of time.
In Like a Virgin: How Science Is Redesigning the Rules of Sex, Prasad looks at both the myths around virgin births and the possible future of sexless reproduction.
The truth is, “virgin birth” already exists for many animal species. Known as “parthenogenesis,” animals like sharks, turkeys and Komodo dragons can procreate without sex. And Prasad explains how the latest developments in fields like cloning, stem cell research and embryonic technologies are opening the door for humans to do the same.
This means that someday a woman of any age could use her own stem cells to produce artificial eggs or sperm to fertilize herself. And “artificial wombs” could even allow her to carry the baby to term outside of her own body.
Born in London to a Trinidadian father and an Indian mother, Prasad, like most scientists, showed an insatiable curiosity from a young age, but her interests went beyond science to include languages, history and even politics. “I always wanted to understand why people believed what they did and turn things on their heads,” Prasad says. She’s been challenging assumptions ever since.
When it came time for university, she chose to study biology, a discipline that has captured her imagination since she learned as a child that humans develop from the union of just two cells. She graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Imperial College. “I thought genetics would inform the medicine of the future. Because it looks at causes of the problem, instead of just looking at the consequences,” she says.
If some animals can have babies without males, why can’t humans?
— Aarathi Prasad
Then she jumped in the trenches of developmental biology by working as a cancer researcher and later becoming a policy adviser to the British parliament on legislation about fertility and stem cell research.
Prasad’s interest in reproduction deepened after she became a mother, “by happy accident,” she says, in her mid-20s. By her 30s, she was noticing how many women, herself included, were struggling to find the right partner or chose between work and family.
“I remember waking up one Saturday morning on a bed with my daughter, thinking, ’Well, if some animals can have babies without males, why can’t humans?’” she recalls.
The idea upends previous notions of sex and gender, but as a single mother, Prasad says she is used to challenging people’s preconceptions about parenting. In fact, she believes innovative reproduction techniques could be a powerful social equalizer. For example, using the stem cells in bone marrow from men and women to create sperm or eggs would allow female professionals to become mothers later in life and men to become single parents.
Combining the DNA of two males or two females—which has already been tried successfully in mice—could even allow same-sex couples to have their own genetic children.
Artificial wombs—already in use for sharks and projected to be available for humans within a century—could give hope to women who are born without a uterus, have had a hysterectomy or undergone early menopause. Such a highly evolved incubator could also serve as a “healthier” environment for babies whose mothers have unhealthy lifestyles or for mothers with severe health risks, like cardiac conditions.
Would it not, after all, beg the question of whether we are born or ’made’?
Prasad’s views are shared by scientists like Dr. Hung-Ching Liu, from the Weill Medical College at Cornell University, who is developing an artificial womb by taking cells from a woman’s endometrium and growing them on biodegradable scaffolding. “My final goal,” she says, “is to develop an artificial uterus. And I believe this can be achieved, so then you could grow a baby to term.”
Others remain skeptical: “The uterus is a complex organism,” says Dr. David Adamson, a clinical professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and former president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. He believes an artificial womb is decades away. “There are still issues related to immunology and cardiovascular development that are extremely complicated and not very well understood,” he adds.
Prasad thinks “ectogenesis”—growing babies outside the body—could redefine how genders experience reproduction, since mothers and fathers could start bonding with their children at the same time.
This opinion, however, is refuted by many who fear it would alter the mother-child relationship and the very meaning of existence itself. Would it not, after all, beg the question of whether we are born or “made”?
“Externalizing an experience like pregnancy may lead to a view of the growing child as a ‘thing,’” warns Rosemarie Tong, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading scholar in feminist bioethics. “It would weaken the mother-child bond.”
The idea that we should not be talking about this because people won’t understand it is condescending.
— Aarathi Prasad
Prasad is quick to remind critics that similar objections were lobbed at in-vitro fertilization (IVF). “Does this mean parents who adopt children bond any less with them?” she asks.
Given that one in every four couples in developing countries battles infertility, prompting record numbers of women to turn to IVF (at an average cost of $12,400), virgin births could well become a lucrative business.
Pro or con, Prasad welcomes debate on the controversial subject. “The idea that we should not be talking about this because people won’t understand it is condescending,” she says. ”Especially in today’s world where technology is so present in our daily lives.”
And discussing the matter becomes all the more urgent when you learn that findings could be available in the near term. “A stem cell expert told me they could start designing sperm and eggs from our genetic material in 15 years,” says Prasad, “not even a generation away.”
Feeding her interest in and talent for communicating ideas, Prasad recently left the world of research to join the Science, Medicine, and Society Network at University College London, an organization that brings together academics from all fields to discuss socially relevant issues—including the future of reproduction.
The idea of a “motherless birth” or humans being “decanted” like in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may chill the blood of some, but Prasad is determined to demystify the scientific advancements that she believes will improve lives—bringing men and women greater autonomy and freedom.
“It’s the lack of choice that sounds terrifying to me,” she says.