As around 45% of the world prepares to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ, there are those who will question the truth behind the world’s most famous legend.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was allegedly born to the virgin Mary, though she had never had a relationship with a man. There have been many other virgin births reported both in the Bible and in other religious traditions. Although there is no scripture to support it, Catholic tradition holds  that Mary was herself conceived after an angel visited her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. Whether the angel caused the pregnancy or enabled St. Anne to conceive normally despite her age it is not made clear in the legend. Legend also has it that St. John the Baptist was conceived in the same way that Mary was.

Miraculous births were a commonplace of pre-Christian mythology. Heroes created by contact between a god and a mortal include Ion by Apollo and Creusa, Romulus by Mars and Aemila, Asclepius by Apollo and Coronis, and Helen by Zeus and Leda. Egyptian and Babylonian traditions also include such stories, and the Roman emperor Augustus was said to have been conceived by cohabitation between his mother Atia and a serpent that was actually the god Apollo.

Could there be any truth in these stories? It turns out that there is some scientific support for spontaneous conception.

The scientific term for reproduction requiring only one gender is "parthenogenesis", derived from the Greek παρθένος, parthenos, meaning "virgin" and γένεσις, genesis, meaning "birth". This type of procreation is a form of asexual reproduction which is common in the plant kingdom, but can also occur in many animal and insect species, including water fleas, some types of bees and scorpions, aphids, parasitic wasps and even in some larger creatures such as certain kinds of fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. In fact, one species of reptile, the whiptail lizard, is entirely female.

In larger animals, parthenogenesis is regarded as the development of an embryo from an ovum, or egg cell, which has not been fertilized by a male mate; it is similar to Gynogenesis and pseudogamy in which a sperm or pollen triggers the development of the egg cell into an embryo but makes no genetic contribution to the embryo, though different to the type of independent reproduction that can occur in hermaphrodites when both male and female genitalia and reproductive organs are present.

So, "virgin births" are both possible and prevalent in nature, but can such a phenomenon actually happen in human women?

The question has intrigued scientists for decades, with some convinced of the authenticity of the concept. In his book, Mysteries of Human Reproduction, Raymond Bernard described how, in 1933, Dr. Walter Timme presented a lecture entitled " Immaculate Conception – a Scientific Possibility" to the New York Academy of Medicine, in which he outlined evidence to prove that the concept was physiologically possible. He explained that the parovarium of the female reproductive organs could spontaneously produce living spermatozoa to fertilize the egg cell and create an embryo, making parthenogenesis possible.

In her book, " Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex", Aarathi Prasad, outlines a case from the 1950s, when geneticist Helen Spurway advertised in the Sunday Pictorial to find potential "Virgin Mothers". The newspaper had published an article on Spurway’s research into the occurrence of parthenogenesis in fish, and women were then invited to contact the paper if they believed they had conceived a child without the aid of a father. A total of nineteen women replied, but most were eliminated quickly when the scientist was able to easily disprove their claims; however one remained as a potential example of genuine of parthenogenesis: Emmimarie Jones and her 11-year-old daughter, Monica.

Without the benefit of modern-day DNA testing, proving Jones’ claims was difficult, but Spurway devised a test in which a piece of Monica’s skin was grafted onto her mother’s, and vice versa. The logic behind this process was that, if Monica possessed only Emmimarie’s genes, then Emmimarie’s immune system should accept Monica’s skin, much like a skin graft between identical twins. Emmimarie’s graft from Monica detached after four weeks, and Monica’s graft from Emmimarie detached after six weeks. A subsequent article, published in the Lancet and written by Dr. Stanley Balfour-Lynn, concluded that there was no basis to Jones’ claims as the skin grafts appeared to have failed, though this did not explain how she managed to become pregnant without the apparent involvement of a sexual partner.

As no tissue samples remain from either Monica or Emmimarie, we may never known whether this was a genuine "virgin birth", but more recent studies have indicated that the phenomena may well exist. Each year, the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) publishes less traditional research papers, and this year’s edition includes the report "Like a Virgin Mother: Analysis of Data From a Longitudinal, US Population Representative Sample Survey", under the rather facetious heading "Strange Nativities".

Results from the study indicate that almost 1 per cent of young pregnant women in a U.S. study were still virgins.

The findings were based on interviews with 7,870 women and girls ages 15-28. Of these, 45 of the 5,340 pregnancies that occurred in this group— 0.8 per cent — occurred in women who reported that they conceived independent of men, not including pregnancies resulting from in vitro fertilization or other assisted reproductive techniques.
The study was originally intended to compile data on the number of adults who still remained virgins, but researchers were surprised when some of their subjects reported pregnancies.

"We weren’t at all looking for virgin births," said co-author Amy H. Herring, a professor of biostatistics at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. "We were analyzing data for a separate project — people who were still virgins once they were adults. But we were surprised to discover a number of them reported pregnancies. Once we confirmed these were not programming errors, we thought there were some interesting factors."

For the subsequent study of alleged virgin pregnancies, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed data from thousands of teenage girls and young women taking part in the long-running National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The girls were aged 12 to 18 years old when the study began in the 1994-95 school year, then were interviewed periodically about their health and sexual behaviour over a 14 year period. Of these, 45 women and girls claimed to have become pregnant despite being virgins at the time of conception.

Oddly, in a strange emulation of the Christmas story, the researchers noted that the virgin mothers tended to bear boys and were pregnant during the weeks leading up to Christmas, though neither similarity to the Virgin Mary was considered to be statistically significant.

The research team, which was led by UNC biostatistician Amy Herring and public health expert Carolyn Halpern , were aware that the statistics were only as valid as the information provided, and it was noted that those with apparently unexplained pregnancies were found to be less knowledgeable about sex, with 31 per cent having signed "chastity pledges" in which they had vowed never to have sex until after marriage.

"We found [the "virgin birth" phenomenon] was more common among women who signed chastity pledges or whose parents indicated lower levels of communication with their children about sex and birth control," said Herring.

The study has paved the way for future research into one of the most intriguing legends of Christmas, but do we really want to know the answer? According to a recent Pew survey, around three-quarters of Americans believe in the Virgin Birth, with or without scientific proof. This suggests that some of us are just content to believe in miracles and don’t always need "science" to provide the answers. Sometimes the joy is in the "not knowing", to have a corner of our minds where a delicious mystery remains to intrigue and delight us. Christmas is full of stories that defy explanation, both religious and traditional, from the Virgin Birth to the impossible flight of Santa as he courses around the Earth delivering presents to the deserving children of the world.

The magic of this very special time of year lies in warmth and goodwill to all men and women, and not in science and the discovery of cold, hard facts. It is a time to put these aside for a day, instead to allow ourselves to revel in childish joy and the promise of a miracle…

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