Publication of a research paper on creating sperm cells from embryonic stem cells has created the usual media furore, complete with mostly uncritical hype about what this technology can actually achieve and a failure to ask scientists the really hard questions. Not being a pro-lifer I have no problem with the use of embryonic stem cells in basic research. However, the idea that sperm cells produced from embryonic stem cells in a laboratory could be used in fertility treatment is a dangerous and unethical technological fantasy. Like the idea of “therapeutic cloning”, what seems simple in theory will in practice prove practically impossible, precisely because it is so unnatural.
Much of the media discussion has focused on the idea that this might lead to 'men becoming redundant'. As with cloning, and the fears of armies of cloned soldiers, the point is not to take such scenarios literally, but to look beneath the surface at what the fears are really about. The scientific drive to abstract the whole of the human reproductive life cycle from its context of actual human bodies is just an example of the deep dynamic of science in our society. Since the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, the function of science has been to control nature and to impose order upon its random messiness, eventually to improve upon it, and ultimately to replace the need for it. What reproductive and biotechnology are now bringing home to us is that nature includes us. Thus, for the last 25 years we have seen the emergence of transhumanist/posthumanist movements, which look forward to the evolution through technology (including bio-, nano- and information technology) of posthuman beings (entities?). Feminists have been arguing since the 1970s that reproductive technology is an attempt to control and appropriate women's fertility, which aims ultimately to end the reliance on the female body for production of children, through artificial wombs. Now, it seems it is men's turn to feel this anxiety.
Of course, the capitalist-scientific drive to dominate nature is very male, (nature is gendered as female in nearly all cultures), and is one of the key features of patriarchy in our societies. What is interesting is that, by its own logic, it must also move to dispense with men's bodies, testes, penises.
There are feminist theories that argue that a major part of men's tendency to try to dominate women comes from a psychological insecurity which arises from the fact that men do not carry and give birth to children, which is, after all, a central part of human life. In that process, men feel like lightweights, and I think this latest research presses exactly on that nerve. That may be why, although the idea that men will become redundant is very unlikely, there has been so much interest in this bit of research.
A fuller version of this blog can be found at www.hgalert.org/artiifcial_sperm_blog.htm