Reproductive Health

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.


A Different Kind of Egg For Easter: Scientific Proof of Fetal Pain and the Legal Right to Choose Abortion

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

On January 3, 2017 Congressman Trent Franks from Arizona suggested a major change in the law which could overturn precedent of more than 30 years. He introduced the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” which generally prohibits abortions after 20 weeks. Fueling this highly controversial legislation is a complex scientific and legal debate as to whether or not the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, and if that proof should result in a change in the law.

Advocates on both sides of the Act include physicians, legislators, constitutional law experts, policy interest groups, philosophers and neuroscientists. Supporters of non-interference prior to viability advocate that proof of fetal pain is not substantiated. One the other side, fetal pain protestors argue that a fetus can in fact feel pain at 20 weeks, and abortions should be proscribed between after that time.

The Supreme Court ruled in watershed cases Roe v. Wade (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), that a woman’s right to elect an abortion prior to viability, which is usually 23 to 24 weeks, is a constitutionally protected “fundamental right.” Time and time again, the Supreme Court has upheld that precedent, and prevented the right to interfere with a woman’s choice prior to viability. However, new medical technology advances call the old law into question. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in Roe, medical science will reduce the point of viability and “Roe is clearly on a collision course with itself.”

Scientifically speaking, both parties have referenced the anatomical makeup for fetal pain to support their arguments. Studies show that the thalamus and pain sensor receptors, usually developed by 20 weeks, are used to process pain. The counter argument is that the anatomical capability to feel pain does not equate to actually feeling pain: fetuses at 20 weeks lack the necessary pain pathways, or physiological ability to communicate pain, even if the thalamus and receptors are available. Legislative findings of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act argue that fetuses at 20 weeks not only respond to touch, but also emit stress hormones and recoil at painful stimuli. Thus, some have concluded that fetuses are indeed “capable” of feeling pain and abortion should be proscribed at that time.

So where should the court draw the line? One past example of legislation related to medical uncertainty related to fetal pain was the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. After much controversy, this act was upheld by Gonzalez v. Carhart  (2007) noting that “medical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative power in the abortion context any more than it does in other contexts.” In this sense, Congressman Trent Franks’ bill could potentially pass, despite long held precedent, because the courts retain legislative power within the abortion context when there is medical uncertainty. However, much like the Partial Birth Abortion Act, if Congress passes this legislation, it will be up to the state courts and modern day legal advocates to reinforce or discredit it on a case-by-case basis.

Only time will tell how this intricately webbed science-law issue will play out. Judith Munson quoted as early as 1975 in her article Fetal Research: A View from Right to Life to Wrongful Birth, “The controversy has become a contest between the state of the art and the state of the law.” Constitutional lawyers, physicians and the general public certainly have their work cut out for them in understanding how medical science impacts the law. As O.D. Jones remarks, “Law and neuroscience seem strange bedfellows. But the engagement of law with neuroscientific evidence was inevitable.” This holds especially true in relation to mother chicks and decisions regarding their “eggs.”


Unlocking the Abortion & Evolution Debates:Defining the Essence of Being Human

by Emily Puchalski, UMN Law Student, MJLST Notes & Comments Editor

Thumbnail-Emily-Puchalski.jpgAs scientific research and technological advancement abound in our modern world, often times the law struggles to keep up. The law’s struggle to keep up is evident in debates centering on defining personhood. The question of what it means to be a person/human involves the controversial issues of abortion and evolution, which have divided our nation for decades. Although scientists are helping our understanding of what being human means by studying life at its most basic, controversy abounds regarding not only the results of the studies but also the theoretical underpinnings of even allowing the studies. As our nation becomes more polarized between conservative and liberal thinkers the struggle of defining personhood has come to the forefront in politics.

In his recent article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Defining the Essence of Being Human, Efthimio Parasidis contemplates how science could aid the law in attempting to define a person and looks at modern examples of the personhood debate. One of the examples Parasidis describes are personhood amendments that are often backed by anti-abortion groups seeking to have life defined as beginning at conception. These so called personhood amendments have begun to spring up in various states and in many instances the groups attempt to get them on ballots for the public’s vote. Interestingly, after Parasidis’s publication an attempt in Ohio to define life as starting with fertilization failed to get the requisite number of signatures to get on the ballot.

The failure of Personhood Ohio to get the requisite number of votes could foreshadow a big issue in the upcoming presidential election, because Ohio is a battleground state for the by all accounts close presidential race between Obama and Romney. Whether the failure of the amendment signals trouble for the Romney-Ryan ticket is unknown. Interestingly, Romney’s position on abortion has been he opposes abortion except in cases where it may be required for the mother’s health or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. While Ryan seems to have tempered his pro-life views during the election.The Romney-Ryan ticket is in a difficult place trying to win the conservative vote while still trying to win Ohio where enough signatures were not garnered.


Bioethic Concerns 34 Years After 1st Test Tube Baby

mjlst-logo-button.pngProfessor Susan Wolf, Founding Chair of the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences (which oversees and manages MJLST) discusses the latest bioethical concerns related to in vitro fertilization (IVF) on Minnesota Public Radio‘s The Daily Circuit program (click play button below):

In related content, MJLST Issue 10.1 included an article by Debora Spar, author of The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception and attorney Anna M. Harrington entitled “Building a Better Baby Business” that offers a road map to ensuring quality and equity in the reproductive technology industry.

For insights into understanding legal responses to technological change, using in vitro fertilization as an example, see Understanding Legal Responses to Technological Change of In Vitro Fertilization, by Lyria Bennett Moses in MJLST Issue 6.2.