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Artificial womb has many possible futures

  • 09 May 2017


One of the big science stories in the last month has been the invention of an artificial womb. The device has successfully assisted a number of lamb foetuses to term, and scientists are hopeful it will also assist premature human babies.

What a wonderful development, to alleviate the health complications for those tiny babies and reduce the heartache for their parents.

But the potential of the invention does not stop there. As one scientist said, 'It's appealing to imagine a world where artificial wombs grow babies, eliminating the health risk of pregnancy.' Will this invention be used for women unable to carry a baby to term? Can it be used by women who choose not to carry their own baby? Will pregnant women be forced to give up their baby to the device? Will it replace women altogether?

Technology is value free. The artificial womb is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It is simply a tool. Like all tools however, humans could choose to put it to use in ways that are good or bad. This technology therefore has many futures. That it can assist premature babies is not hard to see as an important and valuable use. Imagine, however, using the device to grow a baby from scratch: from in vitro conception to gestation in a bag. A boon, you might think, for women unable to carry a child.

The device would serve as a surrogate — without the complexities of human relationships. This might afford women reproductive agency, freeing them from the limitations of their bodies to be able to have a child. As more women might become mothers, so too might society benefit from the value of children who would otherwise not be born.

It is not only women who might avail themselves of this option. Anyone wanting to have a baby might use the device. Unlike other forms of artificial reproduction the artificial womb might separate women from gestation and birth altogether. Theoretically, all that is required is an egg. This raises different ethical questions altogether from that of the previous scenario. It poses questions about the nature of woman as mother, and also about the child birthed independently of any mother. It causes us to rethink not only biological or genetic relationships, but social relationships.

Then there is the matter of reproductive freedom for women who are able to be pregnant, but who do not wish to be so. Shulamith Firestone