Artificial Wombs: The End of Natural Motherhood?

Fetus in the Womb
Fetus in the Womb. SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty

Someday - probably later rather than sooner, but you never really know - medical science will likely advance to the point where we can create artificial wombs. This would allow us to grow a fetus outside of the mother's body, either directly from fertilization or even perhaps after fertilization and after the fetus has spent some time in a natural womb.

Science fiction? A bit, perhaps, but scientists are already making strides in this direction.

Researchers at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York were able to take samples of women's uterine tissue and get the cells to regenerate in a laboratory. Human embryos successfully attached themselves to the engineered womb and began to grow; the experiment was stopped after a few days only because of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) regulations. Japanese gynecology professor Yoshinori Kuwabara has created a completely artificial womb which sustained goat fetuses for several weeks.

The simple fact of the matter is that people are actively pursuing this field and radical success in it may arrive suddenly, without warning. If we're smart, we'll seriously consider the ethical implications now while they are still theory rather than reality. So, are artificial wombs a good idea or not?


The Fetus

One of the reasons behind this research is for the benefit of fetuses, and it does seem that there could be quite a few advantages.

For example, the deaths of premature infants could be drastically reduced because the fetus could be transferred directly to an artificial womb where it could continue to grow and develop in relative safety.

Indeed, in some cases an artificial womb might be even more safe than a natural womb - the risks of diseases, accidents, drugs, alcohol, pollutants, inadequate nutrition, etc., would all be virtually eliminated.

This, however, is a double-edged sword: if they really could be proven more safe, could insurance companies and employers force women to use artificial wombs as the safer alternative and refuse to reimburse those who use the comparatively unsafe, natural method?

There is also the question of the baby's natural development. Quite a lot of research suggests that at some stage the fetus begins to be influenced by the environment in which it is growing, which means that the mother's heartbeat, her actions, and the stimuli which reach the womb all affect how the fetus grows. Could a fetus have a right to develop in a natural environment, at least when possible?

Would a fetus growing in an artificial womb ever fully bond with its mother? Would it suffer from social or psychological disadvantages from being grown in a machine rather than in its mother's womb? How many children would have to be raised before we could even find out? On the other hand, should the process be prohibited merely because such problems are possible?


The Mother

Of course, the benefits of artificial wombs do not extend solely to the fetus - mothers, too, may be helped by this technology. The most obvious case would be women who have damaged wombs and are now prevented from conceiving; rather than hire surrogate mothers (another ethical conundrum), they could have their children grown in a local womb-bank.

Indeed, perhaps we will get far enough to be able to implant an artificial womb in a person's body, thus allowing such women to carry children to term just like others do.

There is also the question of convenience - after all, having a child without enduring nine months of weight gain, sickness, health risks, wardrobe changes, stretch marks, and of course, labor itself, sounds awfully tempting. But once again, we are faced with a double-edged sword: if women can have children without taking the risks and time, might they not therefore risk being forced to do so?

Aside from the aforementioned cases, couldn't employers require women to use artificial wombs in order to prevent them from taking maternity leave? If artificial wombs are available and safe, would natural motherhood become a luxury which employers would stop supporting?



Of course, the existence of artificial wombs could have a profound impact upon the abortion debate. Right now, one of the primary arguments used to justify legalized abortion is the idea that women should not be forced to use their bodies for the growth of a fetus. A woman should be permitted to exercise the maximum possible control over her own body, and that would exclude being forced to carry a fetus to term.

Regardless of whether you agree with the above argument, it should be obvious that the existence of artificial wombs makes it moot. If you are pregnant and object to having your body used by the fetus, then it can be removed from your body and placed in an artificial womb for further growth, thus allowing governments to outlaw abortion and use this as a replacement.

Once born, though, could the mother be required to look after the child? Perhaps - and if so, that is a real problem; but presumably the option of adoption is always open. On the other hand, there is another argument used to support legalized abortion which isn't used too often but which would have to grow in importance: the right of reproduction.

Currently we generally acknowledge that and restrictions on that right are fairly rare. Does this right have another side? If we have a right to reproduce, do we not also have a right not to reproduce? If so, a woman could insist on being permitted to abort rather than have the fetus placed in an artificial womb because the outcome of the latter is that she now has progeny.



Religious conservatives who oppose abortion are likely to dismiss the above argument and may consider embracing artificial wombs as a means to eliminate abortion - but they should think twice! The existence of artificial wombs, especially when combined with cloning technology, could make it much easier for gay couples not simply to have children, but to have their own children.

Some people won't be bothered by that, but many others will - and, generally speaking, it would be the same people who might consider approving of this technology on account of its implications for the debate over abortion.

Once again, we find that there are two edges to this technological sword: the existence of one possible benefit almost requires the existence of another equally possible drawback.



A lot more works needs to be done in the study of reproduction and fetal development before this technology becomes a reality. Even then, it will probably be expensive at first and thus only available to the rich - many of the problems outlined in this article assume that the technology is prevalent and easy to obtain.

Nevertheless, once it does appear and becomes accessible to a wider population, we will need to be prepared to deal with the many ethical consequences it will carry. In theory, a person with an egg and some sperm will be able to create and grow a fetus without any input or interest from a mother or a father - a true test-tube baby will be born. Do we want to consider the options and consequences now, or should we simply wait until it is a reality before we wake up and try to deal with it?