Ectogenesis (using an artificial womb):
Will it make abortion illegal, or unneeded?
||"In pain you shall bring forth children." Genesis 3:16, Hebrew
||"Human beings used to be ... well, they used to be viviparous."
Excerpt from Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" (Viviparous means to give
birth to live young, rather than eggs).
||"Ectogenesis is merely an artificial means
to sustain life, and, by this definition, it is no different than life
support.....And while ectogenesis may entail an unnatural delivery, so does
a Caesarean section." Midhatg Farooqi, Texas A&M 5
About the Roe vs. Wade decision:
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered one of its most famous
and influential rulings: Roe v. Wade. 1
One component of their ruling declared that once a fetus is viable -- "potentially
able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid." -- an abortion must be available if the woman's health or life are at risk.
They also ruled that state governments
are free to pass legislation that will allow or prohibit abortions
at and after viability for other reasons. About 80% of states in the U.S. have
laws prohibiting the termination of pregnancies once the fetus is viable, unless
the mothers health or life is in danger.
Fetal viability is a bit of a moving target. It is a function
of whatever equipment and medical procedures are available to support a prematurely
born infant. At the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, the age of viability was
generally acknowledged to be after about 28 weeks gestation. Thirty years later,
viability can occurs at about 24 weeks gestation, at least in world-class medical
1 At this stage of pregnancy, with the best of care and equipment,
a newborn has a chance to survive. The infant will probably be severely
disabled; but it may live.
Ectogenesis: a ticking time-bomb:
providing an apparatus that generates an artificial environment -- external to the woman's womb
-- where the fetus
can develop until it is ready to breath on its own. These devices are commonly called "artificial wombs." Some have been
built for use on animals. They may be developed within the next few years to the
point where a third -- or even second -- trimester fetus could be transferred from its
mother's uterus to an artificial womb. It could complete its growth inside this
apparatus and be "born" at full term. In theory, there appears to be
no reason why an artificial womb cannot be developed which could accept a recently fertilized
pre-embryo, support it for the full nine months of gestation, and allow it to be
removed when conditions are optimum for its birth. All that seems to be required is
advancement in the technology.
This type of
technology could produce massive social, cultural and medical changes in the entire area of abortion and
||A fetus who would otherwise be born prematurely would not have to face
death or a life of disability.
||A woman who wanted to end her pregnancy could elect -- or be forced -- to
have her embryo transferred to
an artificial womb rather than having its life terminated by an abortion.
As bioethicists Peter Singer and Deane Wills write: "Freedom to choose
what is to happen to one's body is one thing; freedom to insist on the death
of a being that is capable of living outside of one's body is another."
||Woman who can conceive, but who are not capable of carrying a pregnancy
to term, could successfully produce
||A woman who does not want to go through the discomforts of pregnancy,
the dislocation to her career, and/or the
pain of delivery could theoretically have their embryo transferred to an artificial womb,
and return to the hospital nine months later to pick up her newborn.
||Society could be flooded with newborns available for adoption. Waiting
lists could rapidly shrink to zero.
||Governments might decide to reverse the trend towards abstinence education
and emphasize contraception in sex-ed class, in order to reduce the number
of unwanted pregnancies, and the resultant large number of newborns produced via ectogenesis.
||Governments may have to either fund many orphanages or offer financial
inducements to encourage couples to adopt "ectobabies." (our term)
||On the political front, about 41 states ban pregnancy terminations after viability,
unless the woman's health or life are at risk. An
artificial womb could be viewed as pushing viability back from 24 weeks to a few days. "If
ectogenesis is achieved, will abortion become illegal in each of those
states? Many pro-lifers will certainly be prepared to argue yes."
||Pro-choice supporters might switch from advocating access to an elective
abortion in order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, to advocating abortion access
in order to prevent unwanted procreation.
||Women who elected to end their pregnancy might have to handle the emotional load
of knowing that their fetus was born and that their child is living somewhere
in the world.
||A male-gay same-sex couple could theoretically arrange to have a clone
made of one of them, and transfer the embryo to an artificial womb to be
born nine months later. This would not be ethical with today's knowledge and
technology because many cloned animals are born defective or develop serious
defects early in life. 4
||With artificial wombs, women would not need maternity
leave if they elected to use an artificial womb. Employers might be
reluctant, for economic reasons, to grant leave; they might pressure their
employees to not give birth naturally. 4
||Since the fetus would not be impacted by its mother's ingestion of
alcohol or other drugs, health insurance companies might pressure some women to
use ectogenesis. 4
||At least in the early years of the use of artificial wombs, physicians will not be
certain that the apparatus can reliably produce healthy, normal newborns.
Removing an embryo or fetus from a normal uterus and transferring it to an
artificial womb with unpredictable results would present a very serious problem in
Development of such a device would have profound cultural impacts -- probably
more than can
be conceived of at this time. Dr Scott Gelfand of Oklahoma State
University organized a major international conference in 2002 titled 'The End
of Natural Motherhood?' He said: "There are going to be real problems.
Some feminists even say artificial wombs mean men could eliminate women from the
planet and still perpetuate our species. That's a bit alarmist. Nevertheless,
this subject clearly raises strong feelings." 4
Development of artificial wombs:
There are a number of ectogenesis programs underway:
||Dr. Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University's Center for Reproductive
Medicine and Infertility is studying the beginning
stages of pregnancy. Her team has removed cells from a woman's uterus. Using hormones
and growth factors, they have been able to grow the cells on "...scaffolds
of biodegradable material which had been modeled into shapes mirroring the
interior of the uterus." 4 The model dissolves over time, and the artificial womb continues to grow. Her team has
placed "surplus" embryos obtained from fertility clinics onto this womb,
They attached themselves to the artificial uterus and grew. The experiment
was terminated after six days. Because of existing U.S. in-vitro
fertilization laws, such experiments cannot be continued after
the embryos reach 14 days development. The Cornell University team has no
indication how long the embryo would continue to develop. She hopes to
develop a complete artificial womb in a few years. Research will probably have to be
done in Britain or in some other country because of existing federal laws in
the U.S. Her goal is to help women who have difficulty initiating a
pregnancy because of damage to their wombs.
||Dr. Thomas Schaffer of Temple University is working on the other end of
pregnancy. He is attempting to develop an artificial atmosphere which would
save premature babies from death or disability. The atmosphere is a
breathable liquid made of perfluorocarbons which contain more oxygen than
air. He has successfully evaluated the fluid on premature lamb fetuses who
were not capable of breathing regular air. He said: "We have babies that
are six hundred grams [21.9 ounces] born on a toilet, brought to a NICU
[neonatal intensive care unit], and survive. Now we can take care of these
children." He lacks the funding to continue his study.
||Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University in Japan has developed a
artificial womb which is made from acrylic plastic and filled with heated
amniotic fluid. "The fetus lies submerged in the tank womb which replaces
oxygen and cleans the fetus' blood with a dialysis machine connected to the
umbilical cord..." 7 They were
transferred to the machine after three weeks of gestation. That would be equivalent to transplanting a
human fetus at the end of the first trimester. His goal is to help women who
often miscarry. He estimates that an
artificial womb for humans could be available within five years, given
sufficient funding levels.
Pessimistic views about the feasibility of ectogenesis:
At least two experts have indicated that the technical difficulties of
creating an artificial womb may be insurmountable with current medical
||Dr. Stanley Korenman, associate dean of ethics at the David Geffen
School of Medicine at UCLA and an obstetrician/gynecologist, said: "By
the second trimester, fetuses have essentially completed their embryological
development. They have all of their organs. It's in the first 12 weeks when
embryogenesis takes place, and from a purely technical point of view, I find
it a very distant possibility that we will ever understand enough about that
development to be able to control it. I'm not sure we even want to go
there.....A large number of people, I think,
will find this idea ethically unappealing. An artificial womb commodifies
the outcome, the child. It interferes with the relationship between the
mother and child and imprinting that is a part of pregnancy. There's an
intrinsic feeling that it's the wrong thing to do."
||Dr. Randy Morris, an associate professor of reproductive endocrinology
and a private practitioner, said: "The uterus of a pregnant woman draws
about 25 percent of the heart's output, every minute of the day. That's an
enormous amount of blood flow that an artificial womb would have to
duplicate. Beyond that, you'd have to know exactly how much oxygen to infuse
within that blood, how much nutrients and what kinds, what sorts of hormones
and when. I truly doubt we know enough about how to gestate a natural
pregnancy, let alone put all of that into action in a laboratory setting."
How would the U.S. Supreme Court react?
Matt Butler Chessen, webmaster of mattlesnake.com speculates:
the Supreme Court would decide on the implantation scenario is totally
unpredictable and could depend on the political leanings of the Court at the
time a decision is handed down. Some scholars argue that the Court would split
abortion law into two categories, one for implanted fetuses, which would be
protected completely, and one for normal pregnancies, which would be subject to
unchanged Roe style pre- and post-viability determinations.
Others believe that the Court, especially a conservatively minded one, would
interpret successful implantation as evidence that viability exists at
conception. In such a situation, traditional mothers would have no right to an
abortion, even though their fetus could not be transplanted to an artificial
Still another more radical view envisions the Supreme Court developing an
entirely new treatment for abortion law not predicated on Roe v. Wade. An
activist court might follow the suggestion of the plurality in Casey and
determine that the right to an abortion is so fundamental to economic and social
developments that it must be preserved. But this would require a remarkable
deviation from the Constitutional framework of viability that the Court has
already committed itself to." 6
"Prior to 24 weeks a fetus is not viable - Rebuttal," Evidence for
God from Science, at:
Sacha Zimmerman, "Fake uterus" at:
Peter Singer & Deane Wells, "Making Babies: The New Science and
Ethics of Conception," MacMillan Publishing, (1987).
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Robin McKie, "Men redundant? Now we don't need women either. Scientists
have developed an artificial womb that allows embryos to grow outside the body,"
The Observer (UK), 2002-FEB-10, at:
Midhat Farooqi, "A scientific compromise: Ectogenesis may satisfy a long
debate," The Battalion, Texas A&M, 2003-SEP-30, at:
Matt Chessen, "Artificial wombs could outlaw abortion (draft)," at:
"Japanese scientist develops artificial womb," Reuters, (undated), at:
Scott LaFee, "Spare womb: Will artificial wombs mean the end of
pregnancy?," Union-Tribune, 2004-FEB-25, at:
Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2004-OCT-15
Author: B.A. Robinson