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Moral and Philosophical implications of Artificial womb

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    10th Aug, 2021

Context

Scientists have developed an artificial womb to incubate healthy baby lambs. However, this technology has also sparked fierce ethical-legal debate across the globe.

Background

  • The advanced technology may one day be used to save the lives of extremely premature human babies.
  • Aim: The main aim of the researchers is to develop an effective treatment strategy for extremely preterm infants born at the border of viability (22-23 weeks).
  • The gestation of the unborn infant outside of the body (known as ectogenesis), in artificial wombs, could truly shape the evolution of humanity.
  • 1932-1955: Without a doubt, an honourable mention must go to Aldous Huxley, who first came up with the concept of full ectogenesis and artificial wombs in his dystopian novel “Brave New World” published in 1932.
  • 2017: Major inroads in partial ectogenesis were made in 2017 with the most viable artificial womb system yet. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) successfully gestated fetal lambs in a plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid dubbed ‘the bio-bag’.
  • Present-day: The most recent ectogenetic projects include work researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology who’ve been developing an artificial womb since 2016. Their artificial womb and placenta aim to provide a natural environment for the baby to ease the transition to new-born life.

Analysis

How artificial wombs can help?

  • Future developments may allow better prediction of those infants who are destined for extreme premature delivery.
  • Therefore, an option where high-risk pregnancies or live births before 37 weeks could be transferred to an environment where they could carry on gestating would obviously be advantageous.
  • The primary purpose of the artificial womb is to support the gestation and organ development of an infant born prematurely before 37 weeks of age in an artificial liquid-based environment.
  • This is highly preferable as opposed to a neonatal unit where there is still a high rate of morbidity.
  • The latest incarnation of the artificial womb known as the Philadelphia biobag appears to have side stepped the complications experienced in neonatal care to successfully gestate fetuses ex utero that have been removed from their mother at 22–24 weeks gestation in human terms.

Ethical Consideration

  • It starts to enter the fray when we consider social and economic disparities.
  • There is much contention around the socio-ethical connotations of partial ectogenesis.
  • It is likely to be expensive and restricted to highly equipped neonatal intensive care units.
  • The inception of this science global disparity in health outcomes for pregnant people and infants are in danger of being increased, as is racial inequality within the wealthiest nations.
  • For instance, 94 percent of all maternal deaths occur in low and lower-middle-income countries according to the WHO. So is it realistic to expect prospective parents in these regions to be offered partial ectogenesis?
  • The answer to the preceding question is a resounding ‘no’ – surely this technology would mean universal coverage for reproductive, maternal, and new-born healthcare will finally be addressed.
  • For this reason, equal care for all should be fundamental to the development of partial ectogenesis. Particularly in those regions suffering high maternal death rates and/or race-based discrepancies.
  • A fetus would not have the advantage of antibodies transferred from its mother until it started breastfeeding. Also, vaginal flora likely contributes to the health of an infant. However, this is the same state of affairs for cesarean section and perhaps a necessary exchange where a pregnancy has been deemed dangerous.

The moral and philosophical implications of the artificial womb

  • The development of the artificial womb raises a multitude of bioethical and legal considerations along with serious implications for the ongoing abortion debate.
  • The legal definition of the termination of pregnancy may be redefined once the fetus is transferred from the host to an artificial womb.
  • This increased window of viability, where the fetus can be transferred to an artificial womb at an earlier stage of development than the latest stage allowed for the termination of pregnancy, may also be deemed criminal depending on the abortion laws in the region.
  • This increased window of viability in all likelihood will change abortion law, protecting the embryo and fetus at an even earlier stage of pregnancy.
  • In that event, women could be required to provide legal justification for their decision to opt for artificial gestation.
  • Examples may include a dangerous pregnancy or severe injury risk during childbirth – although it is unlikely that the fetal transference would be legally sound based on a short-term health risk to a woman. Possibly meaning any long-term risks must be proven before the pregnancy is terminated and the fetus transferred to the artificial womb; this will not be an easy task.
  • Another ethical dilemma posed by the ectogenetic future is a case scenario where fetuses aborted by mothers are then rescued and adopted. In that reality, some women might seek out dangerous backstreet abortions rather than using a legal transference to give their child up for adoption.
  • Ectogenesis may also heighten economic inequality – where wealthy prospective parents may opt to pay for artificial wombs – while the less financially secure will rely on women to gestate their babies. Existing disparities in nutrition and exposure to pathogens between pregnancies across socio-economic divides may also be intensified – raising the issue of distribution of access.
  • The potential for serious human rights breaches is once again regurgitated from the mouth of this purported liberating technology.

Conclusion

To conclude, full ectogenesis will likely not exist for decades, but artificial wombs (and partial ectogenesis) are coming up fast. We need to ensure that, when they do arrive, we’re ready — and society values women for more than just their reproductive capacity. Moreover, authorities should ensure that this technology benefits people who can’t get pregnant for biological rather than psycho-addictive reasons.

It is vital to consider its implications in advance of its development – this means broader social and policy considerations are needed for their use in non-emergency situations. Common sense dictates that it will be easier to defend using artificial wombs in emergencies, such as saving the lives of premature fetuses or, one would hope, the person who is pregnant.

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