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


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 

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