The Guardian reports that Dutch researchers have been awarded a €2.9 million grant to develop a prototype artificial uterus. Though artificial uteri have several benefits, they also raise a multitude of ethical questions.
Science Daily reports yet another breakthrough in the development of artificial wombs. Researchers are now able to keep extremely premature lamb fetuses alive in an artificial uterus. If this development continues, it will be possible in the foreseeable future that the entire gestation could happen outside the body. Continue reading Artificial wombs progress
A team a doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvannia have make an important breakthrough in developing an artificial uterus. They put six lamb fetuses in a kind of plastic bag and managed to grow them to healthy sheep. This technology could have significant consequences on the debate on abortion and the issue of gender equality.
The case of Marlisa Munoz is a clear example of a futile medical treatment. Ms. Munoz was pregnant when she died a sudden death at age 33, a great tragedy for her husband, family and friends. Though Ms. Munoz was pronounced brain-dead, the hospital continued to put her on life support, and doing so against the wishes of the deceased’s husbands and her family, because she was pregnant.
Given the early stage of gestation and the fact that the fetus had suffered an oxygen shortage as result of the sudden collapse of his mother, it is widely believed that the pregnancy was unlikely to come to term or that the fetus would have an abnormal development. In either case the continuation of the life support of Marlisa Munoz is a futile exercise, since neither she or her child could be saved.
In most of the civilized world, the moment of brain death is nowadays considered as the moment of legal death. Because brain death is irreversible and according to modern science a functioning brain is a prerequisite for human consciousness. The only valid reason to keep a brain-dead body on life support is for the removal of organs for the purpose of transplantation.
A similar case of medical futility is putting babies with anencephaly, a rare condition in which a fetus does not develop a brain, on life support. Since such being is born without a brain, we can hardly speak of a “person”. Also in this case the most meaningful purpose of keeping such being on life support is for organ transplantation. Any other application, is a waste of expensive medical equipment.
Such cases of medical futility are unethical, because the deprive resources which could be used to treat people who can be saved. It does not make sense to use medical resources to save those who are already dead, while others are dying unnecessarily.
But let’s return to the argument the hospital used to keep Ms. Munoz on life support, until the court ordered to halt this treatment. They argued that they intended to save Ms. Munoz’ unborn child. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we assume that the fetus could be brought to term as a healthy child. Then it would be better if we had a machine, an artificial uterus, to which the fetus could be transferred. Thereafter we could his brain-dead mother let rest in peace. This would save the husband, family and friends of the deceased a lot of emotional distress and legal costs.
Recently we did a post about the 21-hour work week, one of the arguments raised in favour of this proposal, is enhancing gender equality. By reducing working hours, parents of both genders would be enabled to a more equal share in the care of their children. There is no doubt that this idea would improve gender equality, however it is not enough. A fundamental obstacle to full gender-equality is pregnancy.
It’s a biological fact that only women can become pregnant, and unfortunately it is also a full-time job. Pregnancy has a huge impact on female physiology, especially at the later stages. Because of these inconveniences, working women who are pregnant has to decrease working hours or to stop working at all. For this reason, female employees are too often fired, not hired at all, or their temporary employment contract is not prolonged.
And this is only in case of one child, what if a couple wants to have more children? Young women often leave the labour force for a few years, when they are starting a new family. It’s obvious that this is detrimental for the careers of women. Too many women are giving up their ambitions. There should be a way for women to pursue both a career and a family.
As some regular readers might know, I am a great fan of artificial uteri. I have written about it before, albeit in the discussion of non-human animals. The technology would enable, if fully developed, the gestation of a human person outside the female body. At this moment it is not possible to carry out the entire pregnancy in an artificial uterus, only the final stages. But since the later stages are also the most problematic ones, many women would be helped.
No woman should be forced to use an artificial uterus. Some women will choose to be pregnant herself, other women will be glad to make use of this bright new technology. Also this can also solve another problem: sometimes a pregnant woman’s life by her pregnancy, in which case the pregnancy has to be terminated at the expense of the child’s life. For many parents this is a great nightmare. See this post for another possible application of artificial uteri.
In order to achieve full gender equality, any humanist government should encourage research to artificial uteri.
This post describes a personal opinion of the author, and is therefore not necessarily representative of Republic of Lagrangia or the space movement in general.
Although I am a proponent of humanistic secular liberalism, I happen also to be pro-life, i.e. I oppose abortion, which I consider as a violation of the right to life, a fundamental right in classical liberal theory. Since I do not believe that this right can be denied on developmental state, I reject the slaughter of animals and consequently I choose to be a vegetarian. The idea you can be both vegetarian and pro-abortion, is in my opinion hypocritical.
However, unlike (some) many christian pro-lifers, I do support abortion in a very few situations: in case pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the (mental) health of the mother is at stake or in case of serious defects of the foetus. A further difference between me and many “conservative” members of the pro-life movement, is that fully support both adequate sex education and the use of contraceptives. It has been proven that proper sex education (as opposed to “abstinence only”) reduce both teenage pregnancies and subsequent abortions.
Abstinence maybe an effective tool to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it is unrealistically to believe that abstinence only will solve this problem. Whatever you might want, people are going to have sex before and outside marriage, and it is in contradiction to liberalism to impose legal prohibitions against non marital sex.
The first step to eliminate the evil of abortion is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Contraceptives are essential for this, one thing the government may do is to distribute free or cheap (female) condoms in public spaces. Of course condom are not the miracle solution, although they may do a great job. People may forget to buy or use a condom from time to time, and condoms may break during use.
An interesting new way of contraception is discussed in Robin Baker‘s book Sex in the Future. Baker proposes a system in which people get sterilized at young age (16 or 18 for instance) and that their gametes would be stored ex vivo. When a couple wants to start a family they would retrieve their gametes from the storage and became pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Of course this program should be entirely voluntary, although it would be quite effective.
Another topic discussed in Sex in the Future, are artificial uteri. I discussed this in a previous post, although very shallowly. There many prospective uses for artificial uteri, we can think about career women who want to have children, but do not want to be pregnant because of their job, women with defective uteri or no uteri at all, male same-sex couples who want to start a family etcetera.
In these particular examples the pregnancy will start with in vitro fertilization, although scientists who are experimenting with artificial uteri (on animals, of course) usually transfer embryos from their natural environment to the artificial one. As far as I know, no scientists has ever succeed to establish a full ex vivo pregnancy. The possibility of transferring a foetus from a natural to an artificial uterus has a few prospective uses.
One example would be in case of pregnant woman who has died before her child was sufficiently developed to survive outside the body. Another example would be in case a woman who wants an abortion, but doesn’t fulfil to the requisites I mentioned above. If artificial uteri were available, a woman would be able to choose to terminate her pregnancy without killing her child.
In case the woman does not want to have a family, artificial uteri would enable the father to raise his child, provided he is both known and willing to have a child. Otherwise the child would become a warden of the state from the moment he or she is transferred into an artificial uterus.
Some pro-lifers suggest that adoption should be an alternative for abortion. I agree with them only partially. Their plans still force women to carry on their pregnancies to term, since giving up a child for adoption can only happen after birth. Artificial uteri will free women from this kind of compulsion.