MLA: As Waco begins to emerge from our stay-in-place order, this newsletter begins to prepare to return to normal programming. If you’ve just joined us in the past six weeks, that might mean reflections like today’s, or thoughts about some ethical question from literature, or a close-reading of Scripture—1 Corinthians has not been forgotten—or some other text. Become a member here.
In 2017, researchers grew a lamb inside of a “biobag” for four weeks, which in human years is the equivalent of 23-24 weeks—or right up to the cusp of viability. The development set ethicists chattering about what to do when human ectogestation—artificial wombs—becomes possible. That chatter will doubtlessly intensify as scientists work to make it a possibility. Late last year, a Dutch group was awarded 2.9 million euros to come up with a prototype
. They won’t be the last: like it or not, a world in which we can generate human life in vitro
and then gestate it inside of some artificial device is on the way.
There are certain ways in which such a device will not change anything. The development of artificial wombs is simply the last step in the long project of externalizing reproduction, after all: many people who are opposed to such steps will remain resolute in their opposition to artificial wombs. The (high) probability that individuals will elect to use such a process—rather than, say, a surrogate—will probably dispose many conservatives against them.
Nor do I think that such wombs will transform abortion debates, though that is less clear. For those who are tired of intractable disagreements, ectogestation seems like a plausible way forward. If the point of an abortion is terminating a pregnancy rather than terminating a life, then it seems like transferring an embryo into such an environment neatly solves everyone’s problems. Only such a compromise seems unlikely. The pro-lifer, after all, tends to think that any woman who is pregnant should continue to gestate unless their own life or the life of the infant is in jeopardy. While some mothers might place their children up for adoption, and do so for good reasons, the child is still owed a loving environment in which it can grow. Artificial wombs might not supply that as a mother can. The compromise doesn’t look much better from the other side. As the possibility of ectogenesis becomes more real, those who support a ‘woman’s right to choose’ will be induced to clarify precisely what they think the stakes of that choice are: the right to abortion will be reframed as a right to not become a biological mother (even though, in fact, a pregnant woman already is).
At the same time, such a possibility could radically reconfigure how we understand social reproduction. One of the most misunderstood features of the world is that options are relevant only to the people who take them. Necessity supplies reasons in a way nothing else can: if our only mode of transport is walking, then we don’t need a reason for why we are doing so to get to work. But once a bicycle becomes an option, then one needs a reason to walk rather than bike—or, at least, one needs to make the reason that was always there explicit and conscious, which changes its character. Something similar will be true of reproduction: if artificial wombs become an option, then those who do not use them will suddenly need reasons why they would not. Efficiency will count as one reason—but the social pressure to support the cause of women’s liberation from the tyrannical burdens of pregnancy will weigh against that, and make matters for all women more complicated than they were before.
Still, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t develop such technologies. They could prove useful for cases of rescuing embryos, for instance, from premature death in ways we cannot with our current technological capacities. There are crucial differences between an embryo in the womb and a child who is able to live in NICU. Lungs have to be developed to such a degree, for instance, that a baby can breathe with help. That sets a lower threshold on when an infant can be born right now and still survive. If 21 weeks is possible, 15 almost certainly won’t be. The development of an artificial womb won’t necessarily mean that we will be able to rescue embryos earlier, at least not immediately: the process of extracting and transferring an embryo is by no means simple, especially at such a young age. And at any stage there will doubtlessly be risks to the procedure. But it is a step toward lowering the threshold of ‘viability’ for embryos who are known, for whatever reason, to be at risk of premature labor or miscarriage.
The practical questions about ectogestation are not so interesting as the more foundational questions about how such a practice will transform our self-understanding as human beings who are not only formed out of other human beings but within them as well. The symbolic and theological resonance of the manner of reproduction is extraordinary: it all means something. And that meaning will be challenged in crucial ways in the years to come.
Here’s hoping that churches are prepared. (Narrator: they aren’t.)