Attack of the 5-year-old moms!

Doctors have artificially matured egg cells harvested from prepubescent girls. Great advance for cancer patients, or ethical nightmare in the making?

By Page Rockwell
Published July 2, 2007 9:35PM (EDT)

Social conservatives, start your engines. At a fertility conference in Lyon, France, this week, Israeli scientists announced that they've successfully removed eggs from prepubescent cancer patients, artificially brought those eggs to maturity and frozen them for future use. The doctors don't yet know whether the eggs will be viable after they're thawed, but a recent experiment that artificially matured undeveloped eggs from adult women with fertility problems met with some success -- four out of 20 test subjects got pregnant, and the first baby created using this technology was just born -- and experts believe the technology could work for young girls, too. The girls in the Israeli study range in age from 5 to 10 years old.

Considering that chemotherapy can cause sterility and that many kids with cancer will live to adulthood (the average five-year survival rate for childhood cancers is over 75 percent), artificial maturation has the potential to enhance a lot of cancer patients' lives down the line. And freezing patients' eggs seems to have fewer downsides than some other fertility-preserving options under review, like freezing ovarian tissue to be reintroduced into the patient's body later, since doctors can't guarantee that the frozen tissue isn't carrying hidden cancerous cells. So, in and of itself, the idea that sick girls may soon have the option to safeguard their future fertility sounds good. But wait! Over at Slate, William Saletan's Human Nature column is currently rocking the headline "Making Prepubescent Girls Sexually Fertile in Two Days." Put that way, this potential advance also sounds like prime fodder for the moralizing pundit patrol.

Suggestive headline aside, though, Saletan's focus is on reproductive ethics. And not without cause: Parents have final say in most minors' medical decisions, and it's possible that some guardians would go too far. Saletan summarizes the possible problems: "Off-label use No. 1: Now parents of any girl can have some of her eggs extracted, rapidly matured, and frozen just in case she later becomes infertile. Off-label use No. 2: Instant solution to the shortage of human eggs for research. Off-label use No. 3: Instant grandchild to replace your cancer-stricken daughter." Regulation might address concerns 1 and 3, but Saletan's scenarios are creepy nonetheless. Not to mention that egg harvesting could be an unnecessary burden on an already suffering child.

On the whole, I don't see right-wingers going ape about this development; in general, they tend to freak out over options that put girls in control of their own reproductive function, not those that place power with the parents. If anyone starts banging the drum in favor of Saletan's off-label use No. 2, though, all bets are off. Using eggs harvested from children for research purposes would ignite a polarizing debate faster than you can say "value of human life."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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