Sex in the Future

I rediscovered an article that was published in 1999, which was interesting as it cast a look into what was then the future. The work has observed some trends that which have been fulfilled and those which are to come:


Sex in the Future
Trevor Grove, Daily Mail, Saturday 27 March 1999, pp. 22 – 24

The story must have caused everyone who read it an involuntary shudder. Four babies had been born in Italy fathered by men previously diagnosed as sterile.

In an age of ever-advancing reproductive techniques, the births would have been unremarkable but for one factor: the fathers’ sperm used in the in vitro fertilisation process had spent three months growing to maturity inside the testicles of rats.

The ordinary human mind, programmed over millennia to shrink from the sexual taboo of bestiality, reacts to such news with revulsion. Even if the creatures employed as human sperm nurseries had been more amiable – dogs or chimpanzees, for example – one’s squeamishness would only be slightly moderated.

However great the ;parents’ joy at being able to produce genetically natural offspring, the means must seem gruesomely unnatural to most people.

But not to Dr Robert Baker, reader in zoology at Manchester University between 1980 and 1996, who is the author of a startling new book called Sex in the Future.

Dr Baker, who has published more than 100 scientific papers and is a father of five, not only describes such outlandishly unnatural methods of procreation in microscopic detail, he also does his best to persuade us that one day, not long hence, they will not seem outlandish at all.

So dramatic will progress be in this area, he believes, that the time will come when sexual intercourse between a man and a woman will seem a hopelessly clumsy, hit-and-miss, old-fashioned way of making babies, much as Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World.

The difference is that while Huxley, in 1932, dreamed up his Central London Hatchery where human eggs were immersed in a ‘warm bouillon of free-swimming spermatozoa,’ Dr Baker looks forward to the age of non-sexual human reproduction with blithe enthusiasm.

Divorcing sex from conception will bring a host of benefits, he says. Nearly all progeny will be ‘wanted’ children. They will be genetically programmable for desirable attributes. They will be genetically scanned to be healthier. The abortion rate will fall.

Meanwhile, society will no longer have to struggle to uphold the nuclear family, because the institution itself will no longer be necessary, says Dr Baker, who has three children from a marriage but now lives with Elizabeth Oram, with whom he co-wrote a book, Baby wars; they have two children.

In short, reproductive technology could bring about a social revolution as far-reaching as any in the history of humankind.

Yet in some aspects the revolution is well under way. The old biological compact that held together the nuclear family  - help for the woman in raising her offspring, available sex and assurance of his paternity for the man – is in decline for a number of reasons.

The erosion of religious codes, the emphasis on sexual fulfilment, easier divorce and state support for lone parents are among the causes. Among the results is the phenomenon of what is known in the United States as ‘deadbeat dads’  who flee from their responsibilities – leading to growing numbers of fatherless children and partnerless women, and increasing the burden on welfare resources.

Rather than trying to fight this trend with politicians’ homilies and ineffectual tax incentives, society will eventually insist on DNA testing of all new-born babies, ‘which will definitively establish paternity,’ and make genetic fathers automatically subject to a ‘child tax.’ With the matter of the child’s paternity and financial support thus resolved (presumably with the help of the help of a universal DNA databank), lone parenthood will cease to be a social ill, Dr Baker argues.

Couples will have little practical reason to stay together once the early spark of excitement has disappeared. As soon as the emotional and practical problems of trying to live happily together neutralise the initial chemistry of the attraction, they can separate with relative impunity.

Today, Dr Baker says, the lone-parent lobby is a minority voice. But it is growing fast, and once paternity teasing and child support enforcement begin to bite it will grow even faster.
Lone-parent families – and the blended families that arise when such families co-habit – will quickly become the social norm.

Thus Dr Baker sets the scene for his eerie but plausible new world, in which individuals rather than couples will become the progenitors of the succeeding generation and where the need for a loving partner to produce a child will, at best, be optional.

In place of that uncertain, compromising business involving two human beings of opposite sexes, enter the white-coated figure armed with Petri dish, syringe and microscope – the midwife of the future.
The concept of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) has been familiar since the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Until now, IVF (the fertilisation of one or more eggs by a man’s sperm outside the female’s body) has been used primarily to overcome the problem of infertility in the mother.

But, says Dr Baker, there is already more than a hint that before the end of the 21stcentury humans would have turned almost wholly to external fertilisation – so much more precise and controllable than blundering old sexual intercourse.

If that sounds unnatural, remember that biologically it is quite commonplace for eggs to be fertilised outside the female’s body. Many animals and most marine invertebrates do so.

Parallel with IVF has been the development of surrogacy as a means of helping women who can’t bear children in the normal way. The techniques, whether by artificial insemination or the implanting of an embryo in the surrogate mother’s womb, are well-established, though surrounded by controversy.

Yet before that controversy has died down, another is liable to arise – when the surrogate is no longer a woman but a machine.

So far, the only children to have begun life in a man-made womb are a set of baby goats, successfully gestated in artificial amniotic fluid at Tokyo University. But Time magazine has predicted that the first human to be conceived by IVF and carried to term will be ‘born’ in 2022.

If that prediction is right, it is not hard to imagine the long-term consequences. What woman would not at least momentarily tempted by the idea of having a baby without the discomforts of pregnancy  and the pain of childbirth?

Meanwhile, reproductive technology has also been rising to the challenge of male infertility. Problems such as impotence, low sperm count, blocked tubes or the inability to produce mature sperm can increasingly be overcome by sophisticated techniques, such as collecting sperm directly from the testes for use in IVF. In rare cases, where spermatozoa are 
incapable of making any sort of headway on their own, a single sperm can even be injected right into the nucleus of a mature egg.

Thanks to such advances in reproductive science, infertility , both male and female, will scarcely exist by the time the next century has got into its stride, which is surely something to celebrate.

On the other hand, all this progress is also likely to give rise to at least two remarkable ironies.

The first is that the very techniques devised to help couples have children will make coupling unnecessary, except for purposes of sexual pleasure. The second irony is that the same procedures that allow the infertile to makebabies are likely to become more popular in the future as a means for the fertile to avoid having them.

From the ancient Romans’ awkward version of the condom to the latest mini-pill, most methods of contraception have been to some degree unreliable, uncomfortable or unhealthy, often all three. IVF, however, points the way to a form of contraception that suffers none of these drawbacks, Dr Baker calls it the BlockBank system.

The essence of the scheme is that men and women would bank their eggs and sperm at a relatively early age, freeze-storing them for future use, and then have their reproductive tubes permanently blocked.

Doing this would guarantee avoiding unplanned pregnancies and the consequent ‘child tax’ for the rest of their lives, however sexually active, with none of the health risks caused by mechanical or chemical contraceptives. (There would, however, be heightened risks of sexually transmitted diseases – an important detail which Dr Baker makes light of.)

At the same time they would give themselves freedom to have a family at any time they wished. To have a baby, people would arrange for their stored gametes, or reproductive cells, to be united with those of the person by means of IVF.

Thus, as the next century wears on, Dr Baker foresees a state of affairs in which technology near-guaranteed fertility to co-exist with near-guaranteed non-fertilisation (thanks to the Block Bank system), a balance that need to be upset only when a would-be parent deliberately opts for a near-guaranteed conception via the gamete bank and IVF,

At this point the divorce between the reproductive and recreational functions of sex would be total. This sounds drastic but, in fact, the link between the two has never been quite as close as strict moralists like to think.

Among humans, there is an average of not much more than one conception for every 500 inseminations (in the case of lions, the strike rate is even lower: one cub per 3,000 matings).
So it is no wonder that for centuries there were many primitive peoples who never made the connection at all, and who thought babies came from swimming in the river or a build-up of the menstrual blood inside the female.

All the same, in the context of modern Western civilisation, such a complete rupture between cause and effect would have interesting consequences.

For example, freed from financial anxieties, someone might choose to live with one person, have sex with another and have a baby by a third. The range of choices would be bewildering.

Following the conventional route, a woman might choose to have a child with her lover, assured that he’d share the cost of supporting it.

However, if she was were sufficiently well-off, she might prefer to have her egg fertilised by the sperm of a movie star or a Nobel prizewinner, purchasable from a worldwide gamete marketing board, and bear the cost of the child support herself.

By the same token, Dr Baker muses, a young man and his tennis-mad mother might decide to mate his sperm with the egg of an international woman tennis champion – and have the mother act as a surrogate, so giving birth to her own tennis-brat grandchild, fathered by her son.

If that comes close to incest, then other relationships, both in bed and in the Petri dish, would come closer still, once there was free trade in eggs and sperm.

A celebrity prepared to cash in on fame by placing his sperm or her eggs for sale on the internet could become the unwitting parent of hundreds of half-brothers and sisters who, equally unwittingly, might one day sleep or breed with each other.

Would it matter? The immemorial taboo against incest stems from the biological danger of producing a child with a genetically transmitted disability, the chances if which are increased if it is born with two copies of the same defective gene.

Yet in an age when sexual congress does not lead to babies, and the genetic monitoring of IVF conceptions can deflect the penalties of interbreeding, why should incest present a problem?

Cloning, the last hope of the terminally sterile, will produce similar conundrums. Since the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1997, it has been clear that not too far into the next century it will be possible to clone humans.

The only difference between cloning and normal reproduction is that the parent will be 100 pc, not 50 pc, related to the baby, because a cell taken from a person’s body contains all his or her genes, whereas an egg or a sperm contains only half.

Research into the cloning of humans is at present banned in many countries, including Britain. Yet it is hard to believe that this will remain the case once animal cloning becomes routine. The pressure to clone for the purposes of organ and tissue transplants, for example, will be difficult to resist.

People made sterile by an accident or disease would also have a strong case. Perhaps most emotive of all would be the desire of bereaved parents to use cells from a child who had unexpectedly died to create a clone-sibling to replace it.

Such ‘resurrection cloning’ would work only with the living tissue, of course; there would be no hope of producing baby Elvis Presleys. All the same, the implications are mind-boggling, not least in terms of family relationships. A clone-son’s clone-father, for example, would also be his clone-brother – in effect his twin, though born a generation earlier.

His genetic father would also be his paternal grandfather. The women would be his genetic mother (alias paternal grandmother), his egg-mother (no genetic relation) and the surrogate mother who gestated and gave birth to him (also genetically unrelated).

One can see that lawyers, at any rate, will be in favour of the new reproductive era.

For a man who has lost the capacity to produce sperm, cloning would offer a means of reproduction. But a man about to lose that capacity – as a consequence of testicular cancer, say – would have other options.

He might bank what sperm he could manufacture for future IVF and resign himself to sterility thereafter. Or he could resort to the rats to nurse such healthy sperm-producing cells as remained to him in their testes.

Once clear of his disease, the rats could be killed and their testes transplanted into his body where, apparently, they would continue to produce his sperm as well as their own. It is a disgusting notion, especially for the man’s partner, one imagines. On the other hand the psychological benefits of remaining fertile might well outweigh the ‘ugh’ factor. Mankind is extraordinarily adaptable.

We are now used to the idea of posthumous reproduction, for example.

The controversy about the Diane Blood case was not about the propriety of using her dead husband’s sperm to conceive a child, but about the way in which it had been collected from him without his consent.

Only this week we have read of a case in America of a baby being born having been conceived using sperm from a corpse.

A few decades ago the prospect of post-menopausal women becoming mothers would have seemed unnatural and absurd. Yet cases of it happening are now familiar. Five years ago an Italian woman gave birth at 62.

Who can doubt that, as life expectancy increases and IVF technology advances, the post-menopausal birthrate will do the same? Plainly, the range of reproductive choices is going to expand dizzyingly over the coming decades. Dt Baker writes about the ‘reproduction restaurant’ of the future. It is an appropriate metaphor.

If he is right, then in theory almost anything and everything could be on the menu within not much more than a couple of generations’ time.

Take what sounds like an extreme case: scientifically, there is no reason why two homosexual men should not conceive a child who shared their genes.

All that would be required is a female egg, its nucleus replaced by the nucleus of one of the men’s sperm. This egg would then be fertilised by the other man’s sperm, brought to term in the ordinary way and Bob’s your uncle. Or rather, Bob’s your mum.

Quite reasonably, Dr Baker is concerned that the reproductive future he predicts could seem somewhat bleakly mechanical.

He concludes his book with a passage that is obviously intended to be reassuring:

‘Where are the fun, excitement, passion and emotion that have traditionally gone hand in hand with procreation? By comparison with the past, the technological age that awaits aspiring parents in the future might seem cold and heartless.

‘But it won’t seem like that to its participants. There will be no diminution in sexual activity. In fact, with the BlockBank in full swing, combined with child support legislation and paternity testing, people will be liberated sexually far more than has ever has been the case. It’s just that sex and reproduction will be separated – in reality as well as psychologically.

‘Future populations will almost certainly be more promiscuous than past ones. Much will depend, though, on how effectively future medicine kills off sexually transmitted diseases.

‘Even if Aids is defeated, new threats to sexual freedom will arise and need defeating in their turn. But if medical technology can keep these diseases at bay, reproductive technology will unleash the ancient urges behind human sexuality to a degree that has never before been possible.

‘It will be the Sixties all over again but without the dangers of the  attitude.

‘There is no need for the future to be cold and clinical. Our descendants should be able to give their emotions full rein in a way that we never could. The beast within could be released on a longer lead than for centuries.’

Such much for the brave new world that may already be taking shape, a world in which single parenthood will be the norm, a child’s birth-mother will probably have been hired from a surrogacy agency, its father is no more than a number in a sperm bank. But at least it’s boom time for the beast within.

To Dr Robin Baker, it all seems inevitable and even welcome. To many others it may seem more like a manifesto for the misbegotten in a nihilistic world of sanitised sex that could destroy the very meaning of life.

Sex in the Future by Robin Baker was published by Macmillan on 9 April 1999

Comments