Ethics of fertility medicine when almost anything is possible

Timothy Murphy

Timothy Murphy, professor of philosophy in biomedical science, studies the implications of reproductive science for the LGBTQ community. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

There’s a way that any man can become a father — or a mother. And any woman can do the same.

This is one of the possibilities that fascinates Timothy Murphy, professor of philosophy in the biomedical sciences, based in the College of Medicine’s department of medical education.

It’s already been done in the lab with rats and mice: a cell is taken from a man or woman and certain interventions turn the cell into a sperm or an egg.

“What it boils down to is that any man might be the genetic father or mother, and any woman might be the genetic father or mother,” Murphy said.

The procedure would be useful if “a woman can’t produce an ovum, or egg, or a man loses his capacity to produce sperm,” he said.

And it would allow same-sex couples to have children while keeping reproduction within the family.

“It’s a game-changer in fertility medicine,” Murphy said.

While still at the experimental stage, “it’s captured everybody’s attention,” he said. “There would be a market for it immediately if this were possible.”

Murphy is quoted on the subject in The Atlantic magazine, which notes that his work “focuses on the bioethical implications of reproductive technologies for gay, lesbian and transgender people.”

Also undergoing experimental trials are uterine transplants, which might allow male-to-female transgender people to have the experience of bearing children.

In Sweden, uteruses of mothers have been implanted in their daughters, Murphy noted. A woman in Turkey became pregnant after a womb transplant in August 2011, but miscarried eight weeks later.

The third of what Murphy calls the Big Three of future reproductive techniques is artificial wombs, a way to grow babies outside a woman’s body.

“It’s sort of a feminist critique of gestation — some want to do away with it altogether,” he said. “Artificial wombs would eliminate the risks and costs of pregnancy [a woman would lose no time from her job, for example]. Women would have the same kind of independence as men.”

A time line? “I would call it futuristic.”

Murphy has written five books; the latest is Ethics, Sexual Orientation and Choices about Children. “Since the ’70s there’s been a huge debate over parents choosing the sexual orientation — gay or straight — of their children,” he said.

The book is a history of that debate, along with ethical analysis. “You’d be surprised at how much ink people have spilled on this subject,” he said.

The assumption is that most people, given the choice, would opt against having gay kids because of the stigma attached. “The question is more of an intellectual exercise, not a medical reality,” Murphy said.

He’s at work on a book that will be called Helping Gay, Lesbian and Transgender People Have Children: Ethics in Fertility Medicine. Some doctors turn away such patients because of religious qualms, he said.

Murphy has been a member of ethics committees for the American College of Surgeons Oncology Group, American Academy of Pain Medicine and other organizations. He is on the editorial boards of the journals Bioethics and the American Journal of Bioethics.

Murphy grew up in Hornell, N.Y., in what he calls “the northernmost part of Appalachia.” He earned a bachelor’s degree at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, then received a master’s and Ph.D. from Boston College. He taught philosophy at Boston University for four years before coming to UIC in 1989.

Judging from, Murphy’s students think highly of his teaching style. One wrote: “Dr. Murphy is very entertaining and the topics discussed in class were really interesting … Highly recommended!!!”

“This is by far the most interesting class I’ve taken at UIC,” wrote another. “Dr. Murphy is a funny guy who conducts a thought-provoking class.”

Murphy loves to travel, having seen 23 countries so far and logging 50,000 miles last year. “It’s not the airport experience,” he joked. “I like the cultural differences and similarities.”

His last trip was to Paris for the International Bioethics Retreat, sponsored by Cambridge University Press. “It was a mix of business and pleasure in generous proportions,” he said.

Murphy lives in Lincoln Square with John Harris, who works in corporate communications. “I’m domestically partnered — I’ve lived with the same man for 16 years,” he said.

“We’re now on dog No. 2.”

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