Sexual intercourse is an integral part of a human’s life, it is not only a source of pleasure but is also an instrument in the grand scheme of the procreation of offspring, for human civilization to persist. Sexual intercourse, albeit a source of liberation for some, has also been a source of subjugation for others.
Gerda Lerner in her book ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ traces how throughout history, women have been subjugated under men by letting them have control over their bodies and sexuality.
While researching, the author discovered that even in cases where women had some level of economic autonomy, they were subordinate to men because the reins of their sexuality were seized by men in society.
Imagine a World Where Women Do Not Need Men to Have Kids
What kind of a world would it be? One filling to the brim with women empowerment? Or one where women continue to be exploited but in a different way? Would men feel threatened by women to such an extent that they accept their authority? Would women become, in the words of chauvinists, “the stronger sex”? Or would things remain static? Let the head-scratching begin!
The Process of Parthenogenesis
Parthenogenesis is among the infinite wonders of nature, it is derived from greek words meaning virgin births respectively, and can be described as a type of asexual reproduction wherein the females do not require the male gametes to procreate.
In this process, the female gamete or egg does not need to be fertilized by a sperm or male gamete. Parthenogenesis has been recorded in many species and animals such as Bees, certain types of sharks, insects, earthworms, and- although very rarely- in some reptiles such as the Asian water dragon.
Virgin births in mammals had not been recorded up until the year 2004 when a mouse gave birth to offspring without engaging in coitus.
Presently we need to shift our focus to human beings. Imagine it’s the year 2050, and women are giving birth to children without having to have sex?
How would that look like? Well, before going to the future, let’s take a look at the past.
Virgin Births in Mythology
Mythology and theology attribute a distinct sacrosanct nature to virgin births. We’re all familiar with the birth story of Jesus Christ and how Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to him; apart from this there are other examples in religious mythology that glorify virgin births such as:
1. The Aztec Myth of Huitzilopochtli:
Coatlicue, the earth mother of the Aztecs was killed by her children due to the suspicious nature of her pregnancy. She is believed to have gotten pregnant after she placed a ball of feathers that fell from the sky in her waistband.
As soon as she was killed, a fully matured Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec Sun and War God) tore out from her womb.
In quite a feminist power move, Juno (Jupiter’s wife) set out to produce a baby on her own after her daughter Minerva leaped out of her father’s head. Juno consulted flora, and she touched her with a magic flower which made her pregnant.
The Egyptian God of kings is believed to be conceived after the murder of his father Osiris by Osiris’s brother Seth. Isis (Osiris’s wife) is said to have helped in resurrecting him by rearranging his body parts except for his penis which is believed to have been eaten by a fish, in the Nile river.
The birth story of the Chinese agricultural God Qi uncannily resembles that of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, except for the part where Qi’s mother tries her best to kill/get rid of him.
Jiang Yuan, (Qi’s mother) who was a virgin at the time, is believed to have stepped into the footprint of the Chinese deity Shangdi and got impregnated with Qi. Since Qi would be considered an illegitimate child, his mother tried her hardest to abandon him but to no avail.
After realizing the Godly powers of her son Jiang finally decided to accept him. Later in the myth, Qi was known as Houji- who was not only a God of Agriculture- but is also considered the predecessor of the Zhou Dynasty.
The origin myth of Erechtheus has been quite significant to Athenians (who call themselves ‘autochthones’) since Erechtheus is believed to have been sprung from the semen Hephaestus which Athena flung on the ground with a piece of wood.
Although the fact that Hephaestus was attempting to rape Athena becomes quite problematic, Athena still decided to raise Erechtheus as her own and became his adoptive mother.
6. The Birth Story of Krishna:
In Indian folklore, some Vaishnavas believed that it was Lord Vishnu who impregnated Devaki and was born as her son but that belief is highly contentious since Devaki had a husband with whom she could have been sexually active.
Our society has attributed the status of Goddesses to women who have had virgin births since it holds virginity as a sacred principle in women. Although quite intriguing, all of these myths cannot be taken seriously without scientific and historical evidence confirming their legitimacy.
Hence, I have refrained from labeling them as stories or legends and stuck to the perusal of myths. But if it were scientifically possible to actualize asexual reproduction in women in the future, I believe that the moral would scarcely differ from that of these myths. Let us understand this deduction further.
No Men Beyond This Point
Lauded by a lot of viewers for its deadpan portrayal and clever satirical commentary on the sexist world, the science fiction mockumentary ‘No Men Beyond This Point’ paints precisely the type of hypothetical worldly picture we embarked upon to explore-
In 1952, a near-Earth object (asteroid or meteor) almost hit the earth, substantiating a reality where females could reproduce without males and only gave birth to females, therefore leading to a steady decline in the male population to the extent of men becoming an endangered species.
In this movie, women are legally prohibited from engaging in sexual reproduction and therefore cannot procreate male children or engage with men in a fashion other than that of an employer and an employee.
Men have been marginalized, excluding a handful who are permitted to engage in odd jobs and menial work. They have donned a subordinate position in society, yet, not in the same brutal and exploitative way that women had to in the past; which, in turn, is a statement on how a female-dominated world would look like.
Another question that arises at the same time is whether or not this context can be called progressive or idealistic.
Would Such a World Experience Only Female Births?
In humans, sexual gametes have two sets of chromosomes that determine the sex of the fetus. The unfertilized ovum contains the X chromosome and the sperm may contain either X or Y chromosome.
Hypothetically if women started reproducing on their own, their unfertilized eggs would only contain X chromosomes and therefore the fertilized egg would contain XX chromosomes, meaning that the offspring should be female; but this phenomenon is not without its exceptions-
- The Klinefelter syndrome: This is a medical condition where a male has an extra copy of the X chromosome, usually resulting in infertility.
- Swyer Syndrome: In this medical condition, women have XY chromosomes instead of XX chromosomes
- XX male syndrome: As can be understood from its name, in this condition the male fetus grows up with an XX combination of chromosomes instead of XY.
The last of these exceptions is quite relevant to our inquest since it allows the possibility of having homogametic (XX gametes) male sex.
Even if it’s a rare occurrence, just having that possibility thwarts the prospect of having an absolute female population in the hypothetical future. Although likely, the female population would still surpass the male population in such a scenario.
But what of those females who, sometime in their lives, identify as transexual and decide to transition?
Such factors are what’s going to prevent our society from turning into a homogeneously female one.
A Sky-Scraping Spike in Population In No Time
Just like the morning Gekko, Earthworms, and other animals that can give parthenogenetic births, if it was ever made possible for humans to do the same, then the homo sapien female would most likely adapt in a way that allows her to procreate more progenies in a shorter period because it can be speculated that the time taken for fertilization of egg would reduce, seriatim, reducing the gestation period for the growth and development of the fetus.
While we cannot be sure about the homogeneity of the human population, we can still draw a consensus on the rapid increase in the human population. Moreover, asexual reproduction in humans, as in other species, would enable the mother to pass on genetic information to her child.
The child might end up having an identical genetic makeup to its mother’s. In other words, the child might even look like an identical twin to its mother, which is equally as disturbing as it is fascinating.
Dire Health Consequences
Other hypothetical scenarios of parthenogenesis in humans have so far been quite intriguing and almost desirable but one issue that cannot be overlooked is the possibility of having a higher risk of genetic diseases and illnesses in the population.
Since the genetic makeup of a progeny will solely be based on its mother, it will not only be at a higher risk of inheriting her health issues but also due to the large buildup of mutations in its cells, it will become susceptible to various kinds of terminal illnesses as well. Moreover, such a kind of reproduction will dramatically decrease its life expectancy.
Many women who find it difficult to conceive through sexual reproduction might be benefited if they do not have to rely on sperm donors to get pregnant. They could rely on their reproductive capacity without any hassle.
Feminist Critique of Parthenogenesis in Humans:
While some feminists believe that parthenogenesis in humans would end up aiding women and their reproductive autonomy, others seem to have remarkably contrasting views. They believe that such an arrangement would make women into commodities wherein they will be forced to reproduce asexually.
Having already elaborated on the hallowed status of virginity among women, society might just force them to refrain from sexual intercourse and have children in the ‘purer’ manner (asexually).
This would strikingly repress women sexually and make their reproductive and sexual rights forbidden fruit for them. This would greatly alter the traditional experience of family and motherhood for women.
Women who choose to conform to asexuality would be put on a pedestal while women who rebel against it would be villainized and socially condemned, as is true for sexually promiscuous women even today.
According to these feminists, parthenogenesis would aid to perpetuate the notion that women aren’t inherently sexual beings and therefore, amplify the taboos relating to sexuality and sexual expression. The world might become a sexually regressive and backward one if this is how things would pan out.
Additionally, the question of the allocation of resources is another pertinent one in this scenario. As always there will continue to be class differences and hence, the provision of reproducing parthenogenetically would only be accessible to a privileged few.
Significantly making things more difficult for those who were born in socially and economically underprivileged backgrounds since these people would not be able to afford such high-end technology.
As a consequence, disparities, and inequalities would be intensified and existing power imbalances would be further perpetuated. Therefore, the concern here is that such technologies should be developed in manners that endorse the well-being and empowerment of all individuals, especially women.
Why Can’t Humans Have Virgin Births?
In 1995, British Geneticists discovered a case that was as close to virgin births as humans had ever gotten. This was an astonishing case of a young boy, part of whose DNA did not have any trace of his father. His body was produced partly from an unfertilized egg.
This case was a landmark discovery in the study of parthenogenesis in human beings since in the boy’s case, unfertilized cells were not wholly dormant, they were able to create a seemingly normal blood system for him.
This case cannot be counted as a proper case of parthenogenesis since the oocyte was still partially fertilized, so then what is it that limits the highly intelligent species of homo sapiens from having virgin births? When even less intelligent animals such as the Morning Gekko can procreate independently.
We, humans, like most other animals have two sets or copies of our genome which is further split into chromosomes through mitosis. When a fetus is conceived, it gets one copy of chromosomes from its mother’s egg and another copy of chromosomes from its father’s sperm, known as maternal and paternal chromosomes, respectively.
Most animals (even those who can reproduce parthenogenically) are designed to grow and develop only when they have two copies of chromosomes, the only exception in the case of the latter would be that a zygote will be able to grow even if both copies of chromosomes are maternal ones; human beings, on the other hand, do not have this provision.
Our eggs require genetic components from the sperm to set in motion embryonic development and ensure genetic diversity in the zygote, an unfertilized egg cannot survive for more than a day after ovulation. Moreover, certain genetic mechanisms such as meiotic pairing and genomic imprinting.
In genomic imprinting, the sperm and eggs get different epigenetic marks imprinted on their chromosomes. These imprinted genes are present only in a minority, but they are impactful enough to create an imbalance in gene expression and henceforth we need both sets of chromosomes for the endurance and development of the zygote.
The evolution of genomic imprinting is a hotly disputed topic, the most well-known theory behind it is considered to be the kinship theory which states that both these sets of chromosomes have conflicting goals, the maternal one wants to restrict the growth of the fetus, for it to distribute equal nutrients to all offsprings; meanwhile, the paternal chromosome wants to maximize the growth of the fetus even at the cost of the other fetuses growing in the mother’s womb- but again this is just one of the theories. For now, there is little to no consensus on why and how this feature evolved in human beings.
Parthenogenesis would require a massive technological and scientific revolution and a lot of ethical contemplation to turn into a reality. With technological advancements in the field of eugenics and ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) we can probably dream of reaching that level in a matter of decades, but as of now, there is no known biological technique to induce parthenogenesis in humans.
There are various benefits of parthenogenesis and it may well be used as a fertility treatment in the future but the feminist critique also highlights all that is needed to be considered (such as the allocation of resources, and sexual repression of women) for the welfare and empowerment of everyone in the society.
Until there is a clear understanding of the biological and technological requirements, as well as the potential benefits and risks, parthenogenesis in human beings will remain a topic of speculation and debate.