The Artificial Womb and the Future

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Written on 8:27 PM by Jack B.

Tony Blankley has an excellent article on: Roe v. Wade v. Technology which deals with the fact that Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nation-wide in America contains the roots of its own destruction with Blackmun's arbitrary use of "viability" of the fetus as the dividing point in which the "right of privacy" of the woman to abort at any time meets the individual states' rights to restrict abortion. In 1973, viability was about 28 weeks (7 months) but today viability is being pushed farther and farther back. Babies born by 20 weeks (5 months) are now able to survive outside the womb. If this becomes the norm what does that do for the "viability" clause of Roe? Of course this kind of thing has been discussed elsewhere before and that's not what piqued my interest really. The thing that caught me was Blankely mentioning the possible development of "artificial wombs" by science in which babies could be incubated with out the mother's body at all. What would that do for Roe?

Excerpt:

When Roe was handed down in 1973, the survivability of prematurely born babies was not medically possible before 28 weeks of gestation. Today, babies born after only 20 weeks of gestation routinely survive -- and thus are viable under the Roe definition (and thus potentially legally safe from the abortionist's medical weapons).

But radical research may soon reduce that 20 weeks to just a few -- or perhaps no weeks. At Juntendo University of Tokyo, Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara and his team of scientists have successfully removed goat fetuses from mother goats and placed them in tanks of amniotic fluid stabilized at goat body temperature, while connecting the baby goat's umbilical cord to machines that pump in nutrients and dispose of waste.

The purpose of Dr. Kuwabara's research is to provide a safe home for human fetuses prematurely expelled from the mother's womb. According to the British Guardian newspaper, it is expected that such methods capable of sustaining a child for the full nine months "will become reality in a few years."

Meanwhile, at Cornell University's Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, Dr. Hung-Ching Liu and her team of scientists have been approaching the problem of fetal out-of-womb survival from the other side. She is developing a full artificial womb that can receive a just-conceived embryo -- with the hope that it will successfully gestate for the full nine months.

Her team's method is to remove cells from the mother's endometrium (the lining the womb), and grow those cells in a hormones-and-growth-enzymes "bath." Then they let the cells rapidly grow on a scaffold made of biodegradable material molded in the shape of a uterus, into which she plants the embryo. By this method Dr. Liu has already successfully kept alive a brand-new human embryo/fetus for six days -- after which she voluntarily ended the fetus's existence to comply with current medical ethics regulations.

While Dr. Kuwabara's technology is being designed for normal pregnancies cut short by miscarriages, Dr. Liu's technologies will have special appeal to homosexual couples who want to have a child, as well as women with defective wombs and women who just can't be bothered to be pregnant (although the first few minutes of such pregnancies might still be valued for extraneous reasons).

But both, or either technology, once routinely available, could have a profound, if unintended, effect on the constitutional right of abortion. Once such technologies make it medically possible for a fetus to be "potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid" the language of Roe v Wade will not have to be overturned. It could stay on the books as legally valid, but factually meaningless.

Of course the irony of all this cut so many ways, it is hard to count. A technology designed to help homosexual couples and radical feminists have wombless babies may come into the service of conservatives (who oppose homosexual marriage and feminist values) as a means of ending abortion.

Cutting the other way, it is the technology of stem cell research and cloning (which many right-to-life conservatives want to outlaw) that may be needed to develop a technology that could be used to effectively legally end abortion -- thus creating for such conservatives the moral dilemma of supporting the use of what they judge to be unethical or immoral technologies to end the greatest slaughter of the innocent (millions of abortions a year).

These emerging technologies give academic ethicists (as well as the rest of us amateur ethicists) plenty to think about. Remember, in Aldous Huxley's disturbingly prescient "Brave New World," the normal people were genetically cloned and gestated in artificial wombs, while the savages living in remote locations were the only ones who still naturally conceived, carried their own babies and then breast-fed them. The "normal" cloned people thought the natural people were animals to procreate naturally. As it always has in history, the definition of normal is subject to unexpected and seemingly abnormal change.
You know, I've always believed that at the rate science and reproductive technology is going that within a hundred years or less artificial wombs in which fetuses will be able to carried until birth without (eventually) ever being implanted in a woman at all. Kind of like straight from petri dish to some kind of lab womb. It's a scary thought but I do believe it will happen but then will be the result. If the fetus is no longer in a human body, the right to "privacy" and "to control your own body" don't really come into play. But then does the fetus then have the right to life? According to the Supreme Court, when life "begins" lies in the eye of the beholder and each individual person. So are these babies born in artificial wombs human? Can they be destroyed? When? And who makes that decision?

Right now politicians, scientists, the media and (if the polls are right) a majority of Americans are perfectly willing to perform experiments on, to bio-engineer and to destroy human embryos because they are "going to be destroyed anyway" or because "they were never going to be implanted in a mother" but if we had artificial wombs then we could indeed fertilize and bring to term viable babies. But having once made the decision to destroy embryos created outside the womb what prevents us from destroying fetuses created outside the womb? Or harvesting them for body parts like we're doing with stem-cells from embryos? After all, according to US law and the Supreme Court, non-viable fetuses are not human beings and are not entitled protection by the Constitution. What is going to change once they are created and fertilized outside the womb? Will we suddenly declare the fetuses we once called non-human, protected life (which would mean the Supreme Court would have to change its definition that when life begins is unknown)? Or will these fetuses be able to be killed on a whim or for experiments in the name of "science" and "progress"?

I'm not sure of the answers. These are just questions that occur to me when I think of the possibilities that lay before us. And I truly do believe that technology is moving faster than courts of law or politicians or even ethicists and we WILL have to face these questions - sooner rather than later.

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