Medicine: Parthenogenesis?

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Are virgin births possible in nature? In guppies, yes, because the female may be a hermaphrodite and, by producing sperm as well as ova, fertilize herself. In rabbits, fatherless reproduction has been observed after the doe's ovaries are chilled. But in humans? Maybe, says the Lancet of London, and last week doctors went to work to see whether there are living proofs in England today.

Britain's interest in a topic long pigeonholed by science was spurred by a report that Eugenist Helen Spurway gave at University College in London. Among humans, she declared, virgin birth could not happen in the case of a hermaphrodite, who would not be self-fertile. However, parthenogenesis* might occur. This is the process by which an ovum begins to divide spontaneously, without having been fertilized by a sperm—perhaps after it has made up for the missing male chromosomes by a form of doubling. It is almost certain that the offspring of parthenogenesis would be a female, since the ovum contains only female chromosomes.

"If it does occur at all, it is extremely rare," said the Lancet, However, this is no reason for dismissing the idea entirely: "A rare event which is hard to prove is likely never to be reported at all if it is also . . .'known' to be impossible . . . Possibly some of the unmarried mothers whose obstinacy is condemned in old books . . . may have been telling the truth."

How to be sure? Dr. Spurway suggests that a woman who claims such a pregnancy can be tested by a skin-grafting operation if the child is born alive. Ordinarily, no skin graft from one human being to another (except between identical twins) "takes" permanently, because of cell differences. A normal child's cells are slightly different even from the mother's, because they have some of the father's antigens. A successful graft from child to mother would show that the child had received no antigens from any other source.

As soon as Britain's press took up the story, three women came forward with claims of virgin births. Two were married. Doctors promptly began checking the claimants (names withheld), first to be sure that they were serious and sincere, next for blood types. Any blood difference between mother and daughter would throw out the claim. Only after these tests are passed will there be occasion for the decisive skin-graft tests.

* From the Greek irapOkvos, virgin—as in Parthenon, temple of the virgin goddess Athena.