Fetuses in Artificial Wombs: Medical Marvel or Misogynist Malpractice?

artificial cow embryos
A technician prepares artificial cow vaginas at Las Lilas Genetic laboratory as workers extract semen from a bull. Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Women no longer give birth in Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World. Instead, surgically removed ovaries are fertilized then bred in artificial receptacles. That was all pulled out of Huxley’s imagination with the help of LSD, but he might have accurately predicted our impending brave new future regarding birth.

Transhumanist journalist and scholar Zoltan Istvan wrote on Monday about current concrete developing research in artificial womb technology, called ectogenesis. The practice would allow humans to breed without giving birth in perhaps 20 years, Istvan predicts in his Motherboard column. The term ectogenesis was coined by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane in 1924, a friend and inspiration of Huxley’s who predicted that live human births would make up less than 30 percent of all births by the year 2074.

Reproductive Health and Social Justice’s Soraya Chemaly wrote about developments by two leading scientists in the ectogenesis field. In Japan, Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University successfully nurtured goat embryos in a machine filled with amniotic fluid, while Helen Hung-Ching Liu, of Cornell University’s Reproductive Endocrine Laboratory at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, grew a mouse embryo in an artificial womb in 2003, and kept a human embryo alive for 10 days in 2011.

Current legislation halts research projects involving human embryos after 14 days. So it will be a while—at least a decade, according to Istvan—before ectogenesis research can fully gestate human embryos.

Although it holds the potential to be an efficient and occasionally life-saving procedure, ectogenesis has already sparked debate. Is “human” still applicable if embryos are not technically bred of a human womb?  What about “mother”? Istvan notes that the most prevalent philosophical issue driving ectogenesis is that it will shift perceptions of women in society. “Will the feminine mystique be lost by such an artificial process replacing what’s been long a mainstay of the female domain?” he asks.

This question has caused a rift between leading scientists and feminist scholars, who state that ectogenesis “could hand over women’s sacred birthing ability to science.” In her book The Captured Womb: A History of the Medical Care of Pregnant Women, Ann Oakley claims that ectogenesis encourages long-standing misogynistic medical practices appropriating women’s wombs for science’s sake. Ectogenesis is problematic for the socially conservative and religious, too. Journalist and Green Mountain College professor John Nassivera wrote in America, the National Catholic Review that depriving a growing fetus from the intimacy of its mother’s body “is a very serious thing.”

Yet supporters claim ectogenesis will be beneficial to both science and humanity, making childbirth safer for mothers as well as fetuses. Women unable to procreate, infertile couples and same-sex couples needing a surrogate could have children with ectogenesis.

In his article, Istvan supports ectogenesis because it could improve the health of babies: “The theory is that every heartbeat, kick, and moment of a fetus's life could be carefully monitored, from zygote to the moment the baby takes its first breath of air. Every nutrient the fetus gets would be measured, every movement it makes would be filmed, every heartbeat would be analyzed for proper timing,” he writes. “As with all new technology, traditional biological and social customs could give way to newer practices promising safety, efficiency, and practicality.”

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