Presented by NEO.LIFE
Renata Moreira’s one-year-old daughter is just beginning to talk. She calls Renata “Mommy,” her other mother, Lori, Renata’s ex-wife and co-parent, “Mama,” and the man who donated the sperm that gave her life “Duncle,” short for “donor uncle.” The couple’s sperm donor is Renata’s younger brother.
“I frankly never contemplated having kids because I didn’t have any role models,” Moreira begins as she tells her daughter’s origin story. But when she met Lori at a bar in New York in 2013, the gay-marriage movement was in full swing. When the couple decided to marry, they saw many of their friends starting families because of the new legal protections that marriage offered LGBTQ families, and they, too, began thinking about their options.
After months of research and thinking about the values that were most important to their family, they decided that a genetic connection to their kid was a high priority. “It wasn’t that we didn’t believe in adoption,” says Moreira, who is the executive director of Our Family Coalition, a nonprofit that works to advance equity for LGBTQ families. “But the idea was that we wanted a child that was related to our ancestors and the genetic code that carries.”
Moreira is Brazilian, of indigenous and Portuguese ancestry, and Lori is Italian. Given that they both wanted to carry on their genetic heritage, they asked Renata’s brother to donate his sperm, to be matched with Lori’s eggs. The family’s fertility doctor used in-vitro fertilization to conceive an embryo in a dish and implanted it into Moreira’s uterus, making her into her daughter’s “gestational carrier.”
Even as the social stigma around gay parenting lessens — the Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that as many as six million Americans have a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender parent — LGBTQ families that want a biological connection to their children have a lot to think about. A same-sex couple who make a baby must work through an arduous puzzle of personal values, technologies, and intermediary fertility doctors, egg and sperm donors, or surrogates.
But that could change dramatically before long. A developing technology known as IVG, short for in-vitro gametogenesis, could make it possible for same-sex couples to conceive a baby out of their own genetic material and no one else’s. They’d do this by having cells in their own bodies turned into sperm or egg cells.
The science of IVG has been underway for the past twenty years. But it really took off with research that would later win a Nobel Prize for a Japanese scientist named Shinya Yamanaka. In 2006, he found a way to turn any cell in the human body, even easy-to-harvest ones like skin and blood cells, into cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), which can be reprogrammed to become any cell in the body. Until that breakthrough, scientists working in regenerative medicine had to use more limited — and controversial — stem cells derived from frozen human embryos.
In 2016, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan announced that they had turned cells from a mouse’s tail into iPS cells and then made those into eggs that went on to gestate into pups. There are a lot of steps that still need to be perfected before this process of creating sex cells, also known as gametes, could work in humans.
If it does work, the first application likely would be in reversing infertility: men would have new sperm made and women would have new eggs made from other cells in their bodies. But a more mind-bending trick is also possible: that cells from a man could be turned into egg cells and cells from a woman could be turned into sperm cells. And that would be an even bigger leap in reproductive medicine than in-vitro fertilization. It would alter our concept of family in ways we are only beginning to imagine.