Reviews > Culture

Birds, bees, and bovine

Culture | Genetic reproductive technology is helping to bring on the brave new world

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World is about a future society in which human beings would be eugenically bred in incubators, without the need for reactionary social units such as families. The all-controlling state could do as it pleased, since its citizens were kept so entertained-by the virtual-reality "feelies"-that they didn't care. Huxley's novel was written in 1932. Sixty-six years later, we seem to be right on schedule. The Child With No Parents John and Luanne Buzzanca wanted a baby, but they both had physical problems that kept pregnancy from happening in the normal way. So they went to a fertility clinic and found a solution: They would take an egg and a sperm from two anonymous donors and implant them into a surrogate mother. They did, and the surrogate mother for $10,000 gave them a little girl, whom they named Jaycee. But now John and Luanne are divorced. John is refusing to pay child support because he is not the biological father. A California judge ruled in his favor. In fact, Superior Court Judge Robert Monarch went on to rule that Luanne is not the biological mother and is not, strictly speaking, entitled to legal custody. Jaycee, now two years old, has no parents at all, not even the surrogate mother who gave birth to her, since she didn't contribute any genetic material either. As for the sperm and egg donors, no one knows who they are, and they do not know themselves that they have a child. Luanne continues to have custody, but she refuses to pursue adoption proceedings, which would give her clear title, as it were, to Jaycee. An appeals court, in a preliminary ruling, is looking to the surrogacy contract John signed as giving him some legal responsibility. But Jaycee remains a casualty of the new genetic technology that is replacing God's design. Breaking the species barrier The cloning of animals began with Dolly the sheep. Last summer saw the cloning of three lambs, which also contained human genes. Now James Robl and Steven Stice of the University of Massachusetts have cloned two cattle, in which human genes were spliced into cattle DNA. The resulting genetic recipe was fused into a cow's egg and implanted into a surrogate-mother cow. The calves that were born, named George and Charlie, are not some human-bovine freaks but ordinary-looking Holsteins whose cells carry some human protein. The idea is to someday produce cattle whose milk contains human drug factors. So why are we uneasy? My mother the cow Another development in the field of genetic engineering has similar flesh-crawling implications. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took cow eggs and replaced the bovine genetic material with that of a pig. They caused the cow ovum to accept the switch in species and grew 70 pig embryos to a stage at which they could be implanted into a cow. "The egg doesn't care what kind of nucleus it is," concluded University of Colorado biologist John Van Blerkom. Once its own DNA has been removed, it will accept DNA from any species as a replacement. An animal from one species can thus give birth to an animal from another. Thus far, the research team, led by noted geneticist Neal First, has not been successful in impregnating a cow with a pig. But they are trying. Cited among the alleged benefits of cross-species births are the usual litany of medical possibilities: animal organs for human transplants and the production of antibiotics and the like. Endangered species could be saved by cloning a skin cell and letting the clone be born from an unrelated animal. But a British journalist asked the key question: Could a cow give birth to a human baby? The researchers dismissed the question. But might there be a market for having a baby without having to go through labor?

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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