The Future of Human Reproduction: Where will tomorrow’s babies come from?

Human genetics concept. Shiny DNA helix in a hand over dark blue background, collage

A Lancaster University research team has been awarded £1 million to investigate conceptual challenges raised by the future of human reproduction.

The interdisciplinary team of internationally-leading academics has been awarded a Research Development Award from Wellcome to explore the cultural, ethical, legal and social challenges arising from advances in human reproductive technologies.

The team, led by Professor of Bioethics, Stephen Wilkinson, is drawn from five different disciplines including Dr Kirsty Dunn, Psychology; Professor Elena Semino, Linguistics; Professor Emmanuel Tsekleves, Design; Professor Sharon Ruston, English Literature; and Dr Nicola Williams, Philosophy.

They will work with Sara Fovargue, a Professor of Law at the University of Sheffield, to develop new methods and research agendas to explore the complex issues that will emerge as technological advances fundamentally change the possibilities for human reproduction.

Bringing together a broad range of voices from within and outside academia and using radical methods, such as Speculative Design, will enable the imagining of future scientific possibilities.

The team will explore the conceptual and ethical implications of a range of scenarios likely to be technologically possible within a generation including:

  • The development of fetuses wholly outside the human body
  • New methods of creating eggs and sperm that will allow the creation of children with two genetic parents of the same sex or multiple genetic parents
  • Genome editing, enabling a greater degree of control over the genetic makeup of future people

While these advances will be driven by scientific innovation, they will also create significant new cultural, ethical, legal and social questions, such as:

  • To what extent will new reproductive technologies disrupt, or even render obsolete, existing concepts and language (ideas such as ‘birth’, pregnancy’, ‘mother’, and ‘child’)? How will linguistic and conceptual change be exploited or resisted in public debates about human reproduction?
  • What legal and regulatory reforms will be needed to accommodate new ways of making babies?
  • What do past and present controversies concerning human reproduction tell us about how they will be considered in the future?
  • To what extent will changes in modes of reproduction alter prevailing social norms governing personal and sexual relationships?

Through a series of workshops, networking events, and funding schemes, this £1 million award will enable the team to explore these questions, and others like them, in order to shape the future direction of humanities, social sciences, and bioethics research in emerging reproductive technologies.

Principal Investigator Professor Stephen Wilkinson said: “Our aim is ambitious, but we hope at least to make a start on reshaping how bioethics and other areas of the humanities and social sciences do research on novel reproductive technologies, quite possibly with wider implications for the study of science and society. We have assembled an amazing team from across different disciplines and this grant provides a unique opportunity for us all to work together in a sustained and structured way. The Wellcome Research Development Award is designed to enable us to take risks and push academic boundaries and that is what we intend to do”.

Co-Investigator Professor Elena Semino added: “It is important to start considering the implications of future reproductive technologies now before these advances become scientifically possible. This award from Wellcome, which will generate new research agendas in this important area, presents us with an opportunity to start a conversation with those inside and outside of the academic community about reproductive futures and paves the way for a responsible debate about some potentially controversial and divisive issues”.

As well as being drawn from multiple disciplines, the team also includes academics at a range of career stages. Dr Kirsty Dunn, a Co-Investigator on the project who is a Lecturer in Psychology, said: “It is really exciting to be involved in this innovative programme. Advances in reproductive technologies are a vivid illustration of the difficulties that can result from ground-breaking, yet often single-disciplinary work. By combining insights and strengths from multiple disciplines, we can bring new ways of working and fresh perspectives to explore challenging questions about reproductive futures”.

Wellcome received more than 100 applications to the Research Development Awards scheme and Prof Wilkinson’s is one of just eight awards made.

Head of Research Environment at Wellcome, Dan O’Connor, said: “The potential advances in reproductive science coming down the track will present big questions for society. We are delighted to support this innovative and interdisciplinary team to investigate conceptual, ethical and social questions surrounding the future of human reproduction. Wellcome’s funding aims to help researchers take on difficult challenges and further our understanding of life, health and wellbeing. We launched the Research Development Awards to push academic boundaries while also building a diverse and collaborative research community and helping to develop the careers of the people in the research groups we fund.”

The future of human reproduction programme will start in spring 2022 and will run until summer 2025.

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