Redefining ‘Virgin Birth’ After Kaguya: Mammalian Parthenogenesis in Experimental Biology, 2004-2014
Virgin birth is a common theme in religious myths, science fiction, lesbian and feminist imaginaries, and sensational news stories. Virgin birth enters a laboratory setting through biologists’ use of the term parthenogenesis (Greek for virgin birth) to describe various forms of development without sperm. Scientific consensus holds that viable mammalian parthenogenesis is impossible; that is, mammalian embryos require both a maternal and a paternal contribution to develop completely. This essay investigates the historical development of that consensus and the evolving scientific language of parthenogenesis after the birth of Kaguya, a mouse with two mothers and no father. I qualitatively analyze 202 scientific publications that cite the Kaguya experiment and find unconventional interpretations of sex and parenthood, even in publications that maintain the impossibility of mammalian parthenogenesis. Though many scientists insist that males are necessary, they also describe eggs as paternal, embryos as sperm-free, and bimaternal sexual reproduction as something distinct from parthenogenesis. I argue that the scientific language used to explain the Kaguya experiment both supports a heteronormative reproductive status quo and simultaneously challenges it, offering bimaternal sexual reproduction as a feasible alternative.
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Copyright (c) 2017 Eva Mae Gillis-Buck
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