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July 24, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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A Womb with a View

A few columns back, I brought up the recent development of artificial wombs. Created at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, these plastic “BioBags” are filled with electrolyte fluids and outfitted with an oxygenator and nutrient-carrying tubes to better simulate the chemical and bacterial environment of a womb than an ordinary hospital incubator. While these artificial wombs were created as a way to bring premature babies to term, the discussion around them has inevitably led some to imagine a world where they have become the normal means for human reproduction — a concept called “ectogenesis”.

An article in The Guardian ran with this, outlining the benefit this technology could have for [cisgender] women and queer couples, as well as the potential feminist response to the idea of separating womb from [cis] woman. The author argued that artificial wombs would allow [cis] women to better plan having a family around a career, sidestep the health risks of pregnancy completely, and grant those with infertility or other health issues the ability to have a child, should they so choose. Trans couples and same-sex male couples could also use these wombs to have a family, eliminating the need for a surrogate.

As someone who is not female, queer, and/or capable of childbearing, I had no concept of the negative impacts artificial wombs would have if they became widely accessible. So I put a call out to Facebook to ask my female and queer-identifying friends to see what they thought. The responses I got were compelling, and while the health benefits with regards to premature births were generally agreed upon, they mostly came to the same conclusion: ectogenesis is an Extremely Bad Idea.

One friend pointed out that by separating wombs from cis women, new kinds of inequality would be created. What was previously a natural process and an individual right would become a utility, raising issues of access — who, and on the basis of what factors, would be able to use this technology? An issue would also be raised as to who would be in charge of maintaining or monitoring all these wombs. Just because you avoid the labour of actually going through pregnancy, doesn’t mean there won’t be a hell of a lot of upkeep on the device. What used to take one person (and a doting partner) would now take a legion of nurses a la Brave New World. You wouldn’t eliminate the work that goes into having a baby, you’d just reshape it.

Furthermore, the in utero relationship between a parent and their child is a complicated set of homeostatic feedback loops that would be exceedingly difficult to replicate in an artificial environment. A medical student friend pointed out there are a lot of epigenetic factors (effects of genes that occur after the initial function of that gene, usually related to diet and, according to some studies, trauma) in pregnancy we have yet to understand which we couldn’t account for in an artificial environment. While it would be tempting to investigate how a human being would develop while “controlling” for those unforeseen influences, attempting to examine them by growing humans in what essentially amounts to a hi-tech Ziploc bag would be grossly inhumane, and raises the ugly spectre of eugenics

Should they be perfected, the benefit of these artificial wombs to prematurely born babies and their families would be immense, as a serious improvement on the traditional incubators used in hospitals. But having them as a replacement for the real thing might lead towards questions we don’t want to see answered. Perhaps when making decisions about the future of reproductive rights, we should stick to contemplating our navels.

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