Artificial Wombs and the Abortion Debate

Henry Rymer, MJLST Staffer

In a study published in the latter part of April 2017, a group of scientists reported that they had created an “extra-uterine system” that assisted in the gestation, and eventual birth, of several fetal lambs. This device, which houses the fetus in a clear plastic bag, is filled with a synthetic amniotic fluid that flows in and out of the bag through a pump system. While inside this artificial womb, the fetus is attached to a machine outside of the bag by its umbilical cord. This machine is used for several purposes: providing nutrition to the fetus, giving the fetus necessary medication, providing the blood of the fetus with a blend of air, oxygen and nitrogen, and removing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. The scientists report that in housing the premature lamb fetuses in this system, the scientists were able to “maintain stable haemodynamics, have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters, and maintain patency of the fetal circulation” within the fetuses. Additionally, the scientists report that the fetal lambs subject to this test were able to demonstrate “normal somatic growth, lung maturation and brain growth and myelination.” The scientists’ report that they believe that this extra-uterine system would not be relegated only to animal use, as they believe that the device could support a premature human infant “for up to four weeks.”

With the advent of this new piece of neonatal technology, specifically with the implications of what this invention (and others like it) would have on fetal development for humans, the artificial womb poses the power to completely shift the paradigm in regards to how the abortion debate is framed. In particular, the impact that this invention will have when combined with American jurisprudence will surely be a new point of contention between Pro-Abortion activists and their Anti-Abortion counterparts.

With the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, SCOTUS re-enshrined the thesis of Roe v. Wade: namely that women have the right to have an abortion prior to the viability of the fetus. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 846. The Casey court also stated that states have the power to “restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health” and that the “State has a legitimate interest from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.” Id.

The arguments that arise from the advent of an artificial womb in conjunction with case law flows from the notion of what a “viable” fetus would be after extra-uterine systems become more mainstream and sophisticated. If these machines develop to a point in which they can take a fetus the moment after conception and develop it for its entire gestation period, will abortion procedures become completely outlawed? Will “viability” remain the measure by which a fetus is distinguished from a human, or will a new metric be invented to replace “viability?” Additionally, will this be a problem that the courts will have to answer? The legislature? Or a combination of both? The invention of artificial wombs seems to be a periphery legal issue that will not have to be answered for some time yet. However, there are many questions that need to be answered as technology improves and develops, and the abortion debate will not be a topic that will remain untouched as humanity moves into the future.

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