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Growing Babies in Artificial Wombs: Inevitable? Desirable? Moral?

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Susan E. Wills - published on 08/13/14

The logical next step in the techno-quest to do reproduction better than God.

The possibility of perfecting artificial wombs to gestate human babies until they are full-term and physically ready for our brave new world is the unapologetic goal of Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu. She directs the Reproductive Endocrinology Laboratory at Cornell University’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility.

In 2003, she and her colleagues succeeded in gestating a mouse embryo in an artificial womb almost to full term before it died. She has also “grown” a human embryo in an artificial womb for 10 days. Because of a law limiting non-therapeutic research on human embryos to 14 days’ gestational age, she had to kill her subject before that bright—but morally meaningless—line was reached.

In 1996, a Japanese team led by Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara succeeded in keeping goat fetuses alive in an artificial womb for nearly three weeks before circulatory failure and other technical problems cost the kids their lives.  

As the saying goes, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” (François de Charette, 1796).

Ectogenesis is the scientific term for gestating an embryo/fetus outside the womb through full-term “pregnancy” (well, not pregnancy, but you know what I mean). It was coined in 1924 by a fanciful British scientist named J.B.S. Haldane. He saw ovary removal and storage and the extra-corporeal manufacture and gestation of embryos as the solution to the worst nightmare of every eugenicist. In a futuristic fantasy predicting the use of ectogenesis, he wrote: “Had it not been for ectogenesis, … there can be little doubt that civilization would have collapsed within a measurable time owing to the greater fertility of the less desirable members of the population in almost all countries.”

Scientists are not much closer to achieving the goal of keeping a human child alive from his or her creation in a petri dish to … full-term, I guess we’d have to say. “Birth” doesn’t really capture the event of future-baby’s emergence from the faux-womb. Aldous Huxley rightly called the procedure “decanting.” Estimates range from 20 to 60 years before the technology is perfected. But every once in awhile and for no apparent reason, the “inevitable” development of ectogenesis (per ethicist Arthur Caplan) emerges as a topic for heated debate. 

But, really, it’s never too early to examine what such a technological development would mean to women, men, families, society, humanity and, lest we forget, the children.

The precipitating factor for this round of debates was an August 4 article on Motherboard by futurist Zoltan Istvan, which Newsweek reported on August 7. Extropia DaSilva (a “digital person”) opined on Brighter Brains on August 11 and The Daily Beast was soon to follow with an August 12 post by Samantha Allen.

These and earlier articles hashing out the question of desirability and, rarely, morality make the following points.

Reasons given in support of  ectogenesis:

1.  benefits women who want a biological child but who’ve had a hysterectomy due, e.g. to cancer

2.  it offers (especially gay couples) an alternative to surrogacy arrangements

3.  ideal for those who want to avoid the risks of pregnancy (e.g., hypertension)

4.  2000 ”years of morning sickness and stretch marks have not resulted in liberation for women or children” (Nancy Breeze).

5.  “pregnancy is harmful to women and the ultimate cause of sexual inequality” (Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex). Once women are freed from “the tyranny of their reproductive biology,” she explained, “they could finally reach full equality with men.”

6.  the mother-to-be can continue working, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during pregnancy 

7. simplifies the job of the ob-gyn, having only one patient instead of two (mother and child) to
be objects of concern

8. the entire gestational process can be recorded on film and monitored for any potential health issues of the baby, which can then be dealt with immediately

9. it could save the lives of very preterm birth babies (much like very sophisticated NICU basinettes)

10. it’s alleged to be pro-life alternative to abortion, because it is claimed that an abortion-minded woman can free herself of her child without having him or her destroyed. This “choice” is thought to be very persuasive to the undecided because “the freedom to choose what happens with one’s own body differs [sic] from the freedom to kill another who can survive outside” her body.   

11. the gestating embryo can be an ideal source for spare body parts. Embryos would be kept alive until “useful” quantities of tissue and adequately-developed organs  can be harvested. These can then be kept alive in cultures for use as needed.

A few reasons given to oppose ectogenesis:

1. Robyn Rowland posits that “ultimately, the new technology will be used for the benefit of men to the detriment of women.” While she did not compare the prospect of ectogenesis to the technological advent of contraception and abortion, it’s hard to miss the parallel. To paraphrase the seminal work of a first-rate economist George A. Akerlof,  the possibility of pregnancy allowed women to keep the upper hand in their romantic relationships with men. Without producing a wedding ring (or an engagement ring or at the very least an understanding that he’d marry her in the event of pregnancy), men could not get to second base with the ladies. The pill and legalization of abortion ended all that because enough ladies were willing to exchange sexual favors for dinner and a movie. The “cost” of sex for men plummeted, and with it, the likelihood of women securing a marriage proposal. As our grandmas used to say, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” In this case, the fear is that, with ectogenesis, men will figure out a way to further diminish the status of women. Even in misogynistic societies, women have at least been coveted for their value as child-bearers.If the sole unique reproductive function of women in the future is to provide eggs for embryo manufacturing, why would any man put up with our nagging and moods?

2. As a society, we have a disturbing tendency to take a freedom, turn it into a right and then mandate that others provide it to us. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that married couples had a right to purchase and use contraception in the privacy of their homes. No one was forcing them to do so, of course, but they could exercise the right to acquire contraceptives if they wanted to. It wasn’t long before Title X and Medicaid and other government programs provided  “free” contraceptives to all who qualified. Finally, with the HHS contraceptive mandate, even those who want nothing to do with contraception are forced to provide it free of copays to all employees and their dependents. Some have called this creeping tyranny.

3. As with children created through assisted reproductive technologies, we think we know a lot more than we actually do. Unintended consequences sometimes become apparent only years later. This is an excellent reason to avoid experimenting with humans (in ectogenesis and every other way) except when the experimentation is therapeutic for the individuals involved, carries minimal risk and is accompanied by full and informed consent.Children created through IVF have a 37% increased risk of genetic anomalies compared to the general population. Those created by intracytoplasmic sperm injection have twice the risk of genetic anomalies compared to the general population.

4.  Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason has written: “Rather than expending all scientific talent and resources developing artificial wombs, .. I suspect that it will be much easier and cheaper to establish pregnancies with human embryos in other mammals, like cow and horses, than it will be to achieve the same thing using artificial uteruses.” And you were probably thinking that nothing could be yuckier than an artificial womb!

Why the Catholic Church Finds this Technological Development Repugnant:

First let’s consider the Church’s view concerning some of the reasons in support of ectogenesis. Reasons 1 – 4 above in support of artificial wombs presuppose that women and couples have a “right” to have a child who is biologically related to them. But no one has a right to another human being. Couples don’t “make” or ”create” babies when they have intimate relations. They give themselves to each other in love and if a baby comes into existence as a result of their marital embrace, the child is—as they are—an image of God in the world, a manifestation of his love. The child is not something they own. She has equal dignity and infinite worth as a being created for God and loved by God from all eternity.

The “sexual inequality” about which Ms. Firestone complains (point 5) is intrinsic to women’s nature, to the complementarity of the sexes. The human race will prosper (or at least continue in existence) only if women remain true to the feminine qualities hard-wired into their being: generally speaking, women are more relational than analytical, more nurturing than selfish, more prone to peacemaking than hyper-competitiveness. To set up the male paradigm of a single-minded, hard-driving professional as being the only valid paradigm for women as well, is to deny what women are and what makes women happy.

As to 6, there’s no reason most women cannot continue to work during pregnancy, and abstaining from alcohol for nine months should not pose too great a challenge for a mom-in-training. Becoming a parent is an opportunity to enlarge one’s heart and start living for others instead of putting one’s own needs and interests first. To someone who is self-absorbed, it may seem awful to be always cognizant of what’s best for one’s child

Reasons 7 – 9 make some sense, but these potentially beneficial outcomes are more than offset by the harm that could come from treating children as commodities.

The “freedoms” discussed in 10 are not true freedoms. Doing what one wants with her body fails to account for the fact that an abortion ends the life of a distinctly separate being–more than half the time this being is not even the same sex as his mom. And location in a real womb or an artificial womb do not alter the nature of an act of killing.

The final point offered in support of ectogenesis, the potential to clone body parts, has a high enough yuck-factor (I believe that’s the technical term in bioethics) to eliminate it as a reason to support ectogenesis. It’s reminiscent of a side business conducted by some abortion providers years ago. Rather than incinerating or throwing out as medical waste the perfectly good fetuses whom they had just aborted, some entrepreneurial MDs entered into contracts with the Anatomic Gift Foundation to supply freshly harvested baby body parts (in this case, baby boy prostate glands) for a researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center).

Does that adequately illustrate why we must not treat children as commodities?

The limits of human knowledge  …

are graphically shown daily wherever news  can be found. Those who put their faith in Science to improve upon nature, claiming the artificial environment could be superior to the natural environment in the womb  should recall the claims made about the superiority of baby formula (enhanced with vitamins and minerals!)  over breast milk and how very wrong that turned out to be.

Being pregnant can be a burden on a mother’s physical health, but it is also a graced time for bonding with one’s child, for learning the selfless art of mothering as one forgoes foods and habits that could harm the baby’s development. And it’s not only moms and babies who are transformed during pregnancy. Research has shown that men who live with the mother of their child during pregnancy and birth undergo profound and lasting hormonal changes in levels of prolactin, cortisol, estradiol and testosterone.The changes cause men to become more empathetic, patient and nurturing, as well as lowering the dad’s sex drive. In effect, pregnancy becomes a time of bonding for both the parents and their child–strengthening their love and commitment to each other. And this is good for society as well.

Susan E. Willsis Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

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