We always wanted to separate sex and reproduction: now that we have it at hand, we realize what we were asking for

There is no more humane saying than that that says "be careful with what you want because it can come true". Since we have documentary memory, we have always wanted to separate sex from reproduction. The good news is that we already have it at hand. The bad news is that we already have it at hand.

Because in recent years and as technology has brought us closer to that dream, ethical concerns and social problems have emerged like mushrooms in a utopia where, according to many people, everything that seems is not gold.

The long march to contraception

Almost 2000 years before the Christian era, Egyptian doctors already recommended placing a paste made of crocodile dung and honey in the vagina before sexual intercourse. That is surely just the most striking example. Because if we search the history we will find papyri, codices, manuscripts and tablets full of proposals, recipes or tips for making condoms, formulating contraceptive potions or performing rituals so as not to be on tape.

Needless to say, no, they didn't work. It is paradigmatic that the prohibition of abortion appears already in the first versions that have come down to us of the Hippocratic oath, implying two things: the dangerousness of the practice, on the one hand; and its popularity even before modernity brought us the demographic revolution, on the other.

So it is not surprising that social need sharpened the ingenuity of doctors, engineers and scientists and that during the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, all kinds of contraceptive methods emerged (now, a little more effective). The first modern diaphragm was invented in 1880, the first spermicides were commercialized in 1885, the first IUD was described in 1909, and the first contraceptive pill, enovid, came onto the market in the late 1950s.

A huge social change

This changed everything. It is true that to say that the emancipation of women or the progressive democratization of personal relationships are the cause of the contraceptive pill is to do bad sociology. Above all, because they are much more complex phenomena and are rooted in deep demographic, economic and political trends.

Will not be the cause but yeah it was a cause of all those changes. There is no doubt that hormonal contraception shook society at the time. Deeply. It is worth remembering that the most controversial Catholic encyclical of the 20th century, ‘Humanae vitae’, is about reproductive methods and was able to shake the foundations of what is perhaps the world's longest-running great institution.

Sex matters, boy does it matter. And yet all of this was fireworks. We had managed to have sex without running the risk of having children (at least with very very high levels of security). But we still needed it: we had only managed to retrace the path that links sex and reproduction on the one hand. The next revolution was having children without having sex.

From "test tube child" to "a la carte baby"

That 1978, on July 25 if we want to be precise, Lesley Brown gave birth to Louise Brown, the first “test tube girl”. These days, with the scandal of the two Chinese twins genetically edited with CRISPR, we forget what the birth of Louise 40 years ago meant.

Not only was the birth carried out in the most rigorous of secrets, John Brown, the father, had to visit them while the police stood guard at the door of the hospital room and for years they received letters full of insults and "sick" phrases.

These forty years have served to consolidate the social acceptance of IVF and to refine our techniques. We have managed to create children of three parents and surrogacy has become a very strong debate within contemporary societies.

On paper, only two tall scientific challenges remain: the development of artificial wombs and gametogenesis. In practice, the first involves removing women from the process and the second involves removing men.

In both challenges, although it may not seem like it, we are surprisingly advanced. In "artificial wombs," the boost comes from the 15 million premature babies born worldwide each year. The same techniques that have allowed us to exponentially increase the survival rate (and quality of life) of these premature babies are those that we can use in their development.

When we talk about gametogenesis (the possibility of creating viable gametes from any cell in the body) we are talking about pushing our attempts to deal with infertility to the limit. We could do children without the need for sperm or ovaries. It sounds incredible and yet, as soon as we get all this out of the medical realm, the alarm bells go off.

We are at the beginning of the future

The train to end reproductive sex is long overdue and we're almost touching it with our fingertips. We have gone from having 'no' control over reproduction to having 'too much' and that confers a responsibility that frightens many experts. The problem is that, although many of them have claimed the need to prohibit the use of genetic techniques in humans as a way to safeguard us from possible misuses, the truth is that it is very difficult to enforce that prohibition.

But the concern is not that this same technology will allow us to do really problematic things or not. If the pill or IVF caused earthquakes, it was clear that this would also bring them. And we were not prepared. Perhaps because we could not even imagine what was coming while we were playing in the laboratories, perhaps because, as much as we liked it, no contraceptive method works against the future.

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