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August 24, 2006 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Is it theoretically possible for a human hermaphrodite to self-impregnate?

Once upon a time I posed this question on my weblog and that entry still gets the occassional hit with related search terms. Furthermore, I don't recall ever having a convincing answer. Curious minds want to know: It is possible for a human being to have the ability for self-impregnation? Clearly, zhe would be an extraordinary case. I suppose they would need one working testicle and one working ovary, or some combination of the two, and a womb to boot if you want to split hairs. It this possible through hormonal abnormalities? Genetically? What about wacky parasitic twin situations? How genetically similar would the resulting zygote be to the parent?
posted by Skwirl to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: This posting seems to shoot down my hopes and dreams. But, this article leads me to believe that it's possible for a mammal to have one testicle and one ovary. What more do you need?
posted by Skwirl at 3:41 PM on August 24, 2006

Technically, yes, I'm sure it's possible, but most hermaphrodites have at least one set of non-functioning bits.
posted by lekvar at 3:54 PM on August 24, 2006

This human chimera might be able to self-impregnate.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:08 PM on August 24, 2006

What more do you need?

Just a guess, but hormones. A person can only have one set of hormone levels, and I can't imagine there's a balance that allows both sets of organs to develop and function.
posted by cillit bang at 4:11 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: Well, a hermaphrodite got pregnant.

The problem with hermaphroditism is that the bits are there but the parts that are needed for pregnancy aren't usually very well developed. Here's another who got pregnant.

The only autofertilization example I've come across is in rabbit hermaphrodites.
posted by porpoise at 4:17 PM on August 24, 2006

Here's another who got pregnant.
Your two links are talking about the same case.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:27 PM on August 24, 2006

Whoops, thanks for catching that MonkeySaltedNuts. Here are a couple more.

So, theoretically, hermaphroditic humans may be able to self-fertilize especially given the rabbit case. Having a hard time pubmedding the sperm status (whether the sperm are capable of impregnating an oocyte) of hermaphrodites (who don't have any bits removed), though.

The possibility that a hermaphrodite (well, an anthropomorphized aardvark earth pig) could self-impregnate is a major story point in a plot arc in the Cerebus comics.
posted by porpoise at 4:46 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: I think it is theoretically possible, but very improbable. If it did work, in vitro fertilisation would be necessary. This is based on gut reaction and my (pretty good but probably incomplete) knowledge of reproductive physiology. I also found a very useful and interesting paper to back up some of this stuff (I have a full pdf of the article if anyone wants a copy).

First you'd need two viable gametes. The primordial germ cells, precursors to sperm or eggs, start off the same on both sexes and develop into the correct type of gamete under the influence of hormones etc from the gonad they are developing in (it's the environment in the gonad that determines the sex of the resulting gamete). So a pgc in a testicle becomes sperm and one in an ovary becomes an egg. Some hermaphrodites have a functioning version of each gonad (one on each side), so having both gametes form is theoretically possible.

The main problem would be cross contamination of hormones, as they circulate in the bloodstream. The balance of male hormones in the testicle vs female in the ovary would need to be just right so as not to disrupt the environment provided to the pgc, and I'm not sure if that's possible. Note in the rabbit paper above the testis were infertile when the animal was pregnant. However the animal had fathered children previously, so it may be that only one set can work at a time. This would fit with the hormone problem. Gametes could be harvested at different times though, avoiding this issue.

Spermatogenesis is rare in true hermaphrodites so getting functioning, mature sperm would probably be the largest problem. You'd need to find someone who was not only producing sperm, but had a functioning ovary also. Then the sperm needs to mature, which needs the prostate and epididymis and vas deferens, etc. The paper I linked above indicates that these generally do develop next to testes so this might not be an issue. Even if it was, immature/damaged sperm can be taken direct from the testes and used in in vitro fertilisation (intracytoplasmic sperm injection or ICSI), so full sperm development may not be necessary.

Some true hermaphrodites have been shown to ovulate (more common than spermatogenesis) and there have been at least three cases of pregnancy (from the article I linked, one of them was also mentioned in previous comments). For in vitro fertilisation eggs need to be matured and harvested artificially which involves large injections of female hormones etc. This could screw up sperm production quite a lot reinforcing the harvesting at different times. At the very least artificial insemination would be needed as self fertilisation is not physically possible (particularly given that external genitalia of hermaphrodites are usually under developed).

Lastly the zygote needs somewhere to developed. Most hermaphrodites don't have functioning wombs (the article I linked found 10% with 'normal' uteruses). This is because the teste secretes a substance during development that actively inhibits development of the female parts (uterus, fallopian tubes etc) and this messes up uterine development. The three pregnancy cases outlined above were unable to bring their children to term because of uterus problems, and it's not unreasonable to expect that a true hermaphrodite with a fully functioning male side will not also have fully developed female ducts because of this secretion (although I haven't found anything confirming this).

We also need to assume that the hermaphroditism wasn't caused by some underlying totally messed up genetics. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. So while this doesn't kill the idea, it does further reduce the possibility of finding an individual with all the right characteristics.

So in summary, you'd need a true hermaphrodite with one of each gonad, fully developed, producing gametes and with the associated plumbing, you'd need hormone balance between the two sides to be somehow maintained despite the circulating nature of these compounds and you'd need no underlying genetic disorders that precludes fertility. Then you'd need to find a practitioner willing to perform in vitro fertilisation with this person and have everything go perfectly, hormone levels kept in check etc, so the child could develop. All this is possible but the vanishingly small probabilities of finding such a combination lead me to expect it will never happen.
posted by shelleycat at 5:45 PM on August 24, 2006 [9 favorites]

Having a hard time pubmedding the sperm status (whether the sperm are capable of impregnating an oocyte) of hermaphrodites

Good point. the article I have says spermatogenesis happens in 12% of their cases but nothing about the viability of those sperm. Howver, given that ICSI can be used sucessfully on some pretty damaged and infertile sperm and that the oocytes in at least some hermaphrodites are viable, I think that using this technology would allow this fertilisation to occur.
posted by shelleycat at 5:48 PM on August 24, 2006

excellent answer Shelleycat
posted by edgeways at 12:40 PM on August 25, 2006

Well, the standard method of reproduction gives us a set of genes from both parents, and the hermaphrodite's child would only get genes from one person...making the process something more like cloning. You know how you can cut off a piece of jade plant, plant it, and grow a whole new plant? It would be like that, but involving a womb. So it's debatable whether you could really call the process "impregnation."
posted by equipoise at 1:09 PM on August 25, 2006


You also really couldn't call it a clone, could you? Every sperm and every egg carry different characteristics than their neighbors, so while you might be creating a permutation of your own genetic material, you wouldn't be making a replica of yourself.

right? somebody correct me if I am wrong.
posted by Milliken at 8:22 PM on August 25, 2006

I think Milliken is correct here. To be a clone you'd need to gaurentee that the configuration of genes in the sperm and egg where the same, which they wouldn't be. Recombination (crossing over of bits of each chrososome to mix up the genes) occurs during gametogenesis (sperm or egg formation), and as we're relying on the natural version of these processes here genes would be shuffled. In cloning adult cells are artificially made into sperm or eggs, thus avoiding the recombination events.

You have a maternal and paternal copy of each gene. This child would have double maternal or double paternal copies (your parents, not it's) of many genes thus changing it's genetic makeup. However, they'd be a lot closer than, say, your sister, because they would only have genes that you do (just in different amounts and with smoe missing). Your maternal copy of a gene is one of the two your mother has, your sister can have the other one (so a totally different version of the gene). Your weird-clone-child can only have or not have your maternal version (or have twice what you do), so it's more a case of change in frequency or dropping genes. No new genetic material is being introduced but the child might be missing that nice curly hair gene you have or even have double that breast cancer gene thus making the disease inevitable. (not that I think any of you are hermaphrodites, it's just easier to write this way)

Actually, the increased chance of double lethal or increased load of 'bad' versions of genes is the reason for outbreeding in the first place. There's be an increased chance of spontaneous abortion with this process just for starters (nonviable embryo). Not introducing new genetic material most likely reduces the genetic fitness of the child. The ethics of this situation are probably incredibly murky anyway, and this would be an important consideration.
posted by shelleycat at 5:09 PM on August 26, 2006

Did I mention that this is a really really interesting question? Because it is.
posted by shelleycat at 5:10 PM on August 26, 2006

Thanks for the correction and the great answers, shelleycat!
posted by equipoise at 7:43 PM on August 26, 2006

By the way, people who have multiple sets of genitals are called intersexuals, not "hermaphrodites". The latter term is very clinical and harsh.
posted by jiawen at 12:42 AM on August 28, 2006

And people who have one of each type of gonad (necessary for this scenario) are called 'true hermaphrodites', that's the correct scientific term. Clinical and harsh doesn't come into it, it's the absolute correct term for that very specific physiology. "Intersexuals" covers a much wider range of disorders (if you can call it a disorder, I'm inclined not to) and therefore is not the correct term to use here.

There has been a previous ask question about different sex types. For the purpose of this discussion, however, only true hermaphrodites are relevant.
posted by shelleycat at 11:38 PM on August 28, 2006

From the ISNA:
Is a person who is intersex a hermaphrodite?

No. The mythological term “hermaphrodite” implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility.

The words “hermaphrodite” and “pseudo-hermaphrodite” are stigmatizing and misleading words. Unfortunately, some medical personnel still use them to refer to people with certain intersex conditions, because they still subscribe to an outdated nomenclature that uses gonadal anatomy as the basis of sex classification. In a paper titled Changing the Nomenclature/Taxonomy for Intersex: A Scientific and Clinical Rationale, five ISNA-associated experts recommend that all terms based on the root “hermaphrodite” be abandoned because they are scientifically specious and clinically problematic. The terms fail to reflect modern scientific understandings of intersex conditions, confuse clinicians, harm patients, and panic parents. We think it is much better for everyone involved when specific condition names are used in medical research and practice.

To read more about the Victorian origins of the medical terminology of “true” and “pseudo” hermaphroditism, check out chapter 5 of Alice Dreger’s Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex which is available at our bookshelf, or go to our FAQ called What’s the history behind the intersex rights movement?.

One more thing: While some intersex people seek to reclaim the word “hermaphrodite” with pride to reference themselves (much like the words “dyke” and “queer” have been reclaimed by LBGT people), we’ve learned over the years it is best generally avoided, since the political subtlety is lost on a lot of people.
"Clinical and harsh doesn't come into it"

Not true. There is always room to be nice. Being considerate is always a possibility, especially in a place like AskMefi. And the heading of this thread -- "Gotta get me some immaculate contraception" -- shows that the poster is not being clinical, so it is entirely appropriate to say that harsh clinical terms are out of place here.

"it's the absolute correct term for that very specific physiology."

Again, not true. There are no "absolute correct terms" in science -- if there were, there would be no progress, because what we already knew would be "absolutely correct". Gay people used to be called "inverts" and much worse things, but people slowly learned that those terms weren't very nice. Same thing with black people; same thing with "hysterical women". Intersexuals are going through the same thing now. Some people think that "hermaphrodite" is the correct term to use here, but in fact (as the quote above shows), it's neither accurate nor considerate.
posted by jiawen at 10:23 AM on August 29, 2006

Again, not true. There are no "absolute correct terms" in science -- if there were, there would be no progress, because what we already knew would be "absolutely correct". Gay people used to be called "inverts" and much worse things, but people slowly learned that those terms weren't very nice. Same thing with black people; same thing with "hysterical women". Intersexuals are going through the same thing now. Some people think that "hermaphrodite" is the correct term to use here, but in fact (as the quote above shows), it's neither accurate nor considerate.

I dispute your assertion that people "learned those terms weren't very nice". Debates over the emotional intention of terms for identifiable categories of people are only capable of being settled among participants in a given conversation, not more generally; there is no objective standard of what is nice or nasty, and how much so. The reverse is true: it's the interpretation and usage of terms by the persons so described, and by the surrounding culture, that sets the "nice/nasty"-ness of the term, and this changes over time. Terms that today are perjorative may become ordinary, even euphemistic; today's euphemisms may become perjoratives, and be replaced with fresh euphemisms.

The term hermaphrodite started out as plainly descriptive, and pre-dates by millenia any understanding of the genetics involved. Obviously it's inaccurate, but to call it inconsiderate is, in turn, uncharitable. An intersexed person who is asked "so are you a hermaphrodite, then?" in a friendly and curious manner may choose to interpret this question as a grave personal insult (and thereby overreact and cause offence in turn), or they can take it in the spirit it's intended, and say "not exactly, there are no human hermaphrodites as such. I'm intersexed."

Scientific accuracy shouldn't be confused or conflated with emotional intention. There are a lot of ordinary things that, if described with scientific accuracy, would sound bizarre or offensive - eating fried eggs, for instance.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2006

The mythological term “hermaphrodite” implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility.

Whereas the scientific term "true hermaphrodite' refers to a human with either one teste and one ovary or with one ovary and one ovotestis or, sometimes, with two ovotestes. I don't give a shit what they call themselves or 'identfiy' as, it's not important here. What is important is that this is the only type of human who could possibly fulfil the posted scenario (impregnating themself). Using a term that does not convey this (i.e. the gonadal state of the person in question) makes my answer meaningless

Emotion doesn't come into it. Neither does mythology. "there is always room to be nice" : not when doing so changes the meaning of my statement above to make it incorrect. I gave a scientific answer to a scientific question, and I won't dumb that down or make it factually incorrect because someone happens to dislike a medical term for a very specific condition.

on preview:
Scientific accuracy shouldn't be confused or conflated with emotional intention.
Amen. This is my point exactly.
posted by shelleycat at 11:04 PM on August 29, 2006

Yes, a hermaphrodite can procreate themself. It's called clonning. It's possible for anyone....
posted by cjburton at 7:28 AM on October 25, 2006

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