Could an emerging technology reshape the battle lines in the abortion debate? Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, that fight has been defined by the interlocking, absolute values of choice and life: For some, a woman’s right to choose trumps any claim to a right to life by the fetus; for others, it’s the reverse. But what if we could separate those two — what if a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy no longer meant terminating the fetus itself?
That is the promise of artificial wombs, a technology that has already shown some success in tests on sheep fetuses. Early in a ewe’s pregnancy, the lamb fetus is removed from her body and placed in a synthetic uterine environment in which it receives nutrients and fluids, and continues to develop to term, a process researchers call ectogenesis.
Artificial human wombs are still far in the future, and there are of course other ethical issues to consider. But for now, the technology is developed enough to raise new questions for the abortion debate.
In a 2017 issue of the journal Bioethics, two philosophers, Jeremy V. Davis, a visiting professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Eric Mathison, a postdoctoral associate at Baylor College of Medicine, argue that while a woman has a right to remove a fetus from her body, she does not have the right to kill it. The problem is that, for now, the latter is inherent in the former.
Their argument builds upon that of the pro-choice philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson, who famously argued in her 1971 paper “A Defense of Abortion” that women have a right to not carry a fetus for nine months — but that women do not have a right to be guaranteed the death of the fetus.
Such arguments point toward a disjunction in the abortion debate. Ectogenesis is the answer.
Synthetic wombs have an appeal far beyond the abortion debate, of course. They could revolutionize premature birth, which the World Health Organization calls the number one cause of death among children under 5.
The most advanced research in ectogenesis is underway at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where sheep fetuses have been removed from their mothers’ bodies after 105 to 120 days — the equivalent, in a human, of 22 to 24 weeks — and placed in “biobags,” clear plastic containers filled with amniotic fluid. So far the lambs have developed with few complications.
Biobag technology could be available for humans in as little as one to three years, according to Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon in charge of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia artificial womb experiments. Another team performing ectogenesis research at the University of Michigan also believes they could have devices ready for humans in a similar time frame.
Some major supporters of artificial wombs are transhumanists, who believe in using technology to improve human health, intelligence and quality of life. Women’s rights activists likewise support the research, aiming to free the female body.
But the promise of artificial wombs should appeal most to conservatives looking to reduce the 600,000 abortions performed annually in the United States, but pessimistic about the chance of overturning Roe any time soon. Every fetus that was going to be aborted but instead makes it into an artificial womb could be considered a life saved.
Dr. Daniel Deen, an assistant professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., recently said in an interview with the website Leapsmag: “If the technology gets developed, I could not see any Christians, liberal or conservative, arguing that people seeking abortion ought not opt for a ‘transfer’ versus an abortive procedure.”
Obviously, the idea that science could short-circuit a moral debate is discomforting for some. As artificial wombs improve, biobags are likely to become a hot-button topic for conservatives, who will have to decide how far they want to use technology to accomplish their ethical goals.
There are practical challenges, too: Artificial womb transplants and births are sure to be dramatically more expensive than the typical 15-minute abortion procedure, which costs around $500. And if even a quarter of those fetuses that would have been aborted are brought to term artificially, 150,000 babies a year would be born, almost all of them likely to be put up for adoption — more than the total number of annual adoptions in the United States. Who will pay for those procedures, and who will care for those children once they are born?
It is unlikely that the abortion debate will be resolved soon — certainly not as a legal matter. But as a practical and philosophical one, artificial wombs offer a way for both sides in the debate to move forward. The only question is whether we are willing to accept the increasingly central — and beneficial — role that technology can play in resolving what were once considered immutable human problems.
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