The Vancouver Sun ran an article a few years ago about the development of artificial wombs being tested on fetal lambs. Research continues in this area and it is thought that the first human use for this technology will be severely pre-term babies with a low chance of survival. The ability to gestate life outside the body of its mother raises serious ethical questions, but also opens some beautiful possibilities.
The lead developers of the Biobag technology have a goal of offering “a bridge between a natural womb and the outside world to give babies born at 23 to 25 weeks of gestation more time for their fragile lungs to mature.” This possibility naturally leads to the question of how far we would go with their type of gestation. Fetal surgeon and lead Biobag developer Alan Flake states in the Vancouver Sun article that he wants it to be “very clear that this device is not related to complete ectogenesis — never intended to be, will never be and it’s just not likely to happen.”
Ectogenesis is gestation outside the body of a mother. Flake may not think this will ever happen, but others have high hopes it will. As the article states, the “prospect of synthetic, substitute wombs raises stark questions about how far we want to go in uncoupling reproduction from human bodies, the role of the mother and placenta in fetal development and the way our society thinks about how women are expected to behave during pregnancy.” For others, though, an artificial womb is seen as a promising gender equalizer — women could completely avoid the inconvenience, pain and risks of pregnancy and childbirth, and those unable to have children would have an alternative to IVF or surrogacy.
It is worth asking ethical questions about separating human reproduction from biological parenthood. Women are perfectly designed for growing new human beings, and no technology will be able to perfectly replicate the complex reality of nurturing new life. Pregnancy and child bearing are unique to women, and we know that the deep relational bond formed between a child and his or her mother begins in the womb. We also know that ultrasound technology has already led to sex selective abortion, abortion for fetal abnormalities, and “reduction” abortions where one or more pre-born children are aborted in the case of pregnancy with multiples (twins or more).
While ultrasounds and Biobags both have a similar goal of giving pre-born children their best chance at life, there is also a darker side that comes with this knowledge. Having a window to the womb shows the beautiful humanity of pre-born children, but also allows us to classify and judge those children according to whatever standards society chooses.
Technology designed to help premature babies survive and minimize the side effects of pre-term birth is worth supporting. But until we recognize the value of each unique human being from conception onward, there is still a high risk that the technology will be used in ways that devalue, rather than value, both women and pre-born children.