‘Science fiction worries’: Baby born from 1996 frozen sperm sparks debate
When a boy was born this week in the U.K. using sperm frozen in 1996, the issue arose of how long sperm can be stored for before it is actually put to use.
A recent change in one of the country's laws will now allow for more babies to be born from sperm frozen more than 50 years ago, according to a report by The Guardian published on Friday.
A timeframe extended by 45 years
Previously, gametes (eggs and sperm) could only be stored for 10 years. This timeframe has now been extended to 55 years.
Allan Pacey, a professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, told The Guardian that there was no scientific or medical reason for this previously imposed limit.
“The legal 55-year limit has nothing to do with the shelf life of sperm, or for any other scientific reasons. It’s more to do with what parliamentarians felt was right for society. But since frozen sperm are effectively in suspended animation, once they are frozen I don’t see why they couldn’t be kept for hundreds of years if the law allowed it.”
He argued that there are likely no health risks from using older sperm, though there are no long-term studies outside the cattle breeding industry to substantiate that fact.
“Sperm from prize bulls [is] kept in storage for much longer than we typically keep human sperm for, without any obvious problem,” he said.
For those envisioning a future where people try to get babies from long-gone historical figures, Allan argued that the likelihood of such a scheme’s success is minimal. After all, the world’s first Nobel prize-winner sperm bank closed due to lack of demand.
However, some experts argue that more studies need to be done on the matter. Julian Savulescu, an ethics professor at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian that long-term well-being research was needed that included the emotional impact of having a dead biological father.
“We’re really doing an experiment, and I’m in favor of those, but you have a moral obligation to generate knowledge and modify practice according to the results,” Savulescu said.
Science fiction worries
In addition, as a society and people’s genomes change with time, using very old sperm may become a problem. However, Savulescu argued that these were “science fiction worries” since sperm freezing only began in the 1950s.
The last few years have seen the fertility sector achieve some groundbreaking advancements. In 2016, a team of doctors led by scientist John Jin Zhang claimed to have helped a woman give birth to the world’s first three-parent baby (a child that has three biological parents) using a technique called mitochondrial replacement therapy.
In August of this year, genetic engineering experts at the University of Cambridge produced a "synthetic" mouse embryo without using egg or sperm cells. The embryos produced using stem cells were able to start developing a heart, brain, and other organs for up to a week.
With so many new ways to welcome a baby into this world, it seems old sperm is a minor concern.
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