February 24, 2024

We must prepare for artificial wombs, say bioethicists

Is is a ‘moral imperative’?

The journal Bioethics has just released a special issue on ectogenesis, or gestating babies in artificial wombs. Although it is only an idea at the moment, scientists are making progress and it could be ready for human use in the foreseeable future.

The idea is an old one – in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World all babies are gestated in “hatcheries” – but contemporary discourse also treats it as a human rights issue. Some bioethicists believe that ectogenesis is “a moral imperative, something that would liberate women from the unjust burdens of pregnancy and reproduction”. The editors of the special issue write:

While full ectogenesis is not possible at the moment, recent advances in both animal studies and embryology suggest that the technology might become feasible at some point in the foreseeable future. When this happens, we should be ready for it. It is essential to consider the ethical implications of ectogenesis before we find that the technology is suddenly upon us.

Several of the eight papers take thought-provoking approaches to the topic, as the editors note in their introduction.  

Zeljka Buturovic, of the Center for the Study of Bioethics, in Belgrade, believes that the long-run effect of ectogenesis could be bad for women: “ectogenesis will fundamentally undermine the importance or even existence of the category of mother. Thus, she suggests that ectogenesis may render women vulnerable to either male assimilation or aggression.”

Another article contends that “we have a moral obligation to ensure that full ectogenesis will also be made available to individuals or couples identifying as members of sexual or gender-minority groups seeking parenthood”.

From a different feminist perspective, ectogenesis could be a step forward. Another article contends that “the fundamental basis of women’s oppression is the link between femaleness and reproduction … Ectogenesis hold the potential to enable us to do this, by radically challenging the dominant notions of gender categories and family roles.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

Creative commons