|Illustration of artificial womb technology sustaining a young lamb
Xavier Symons, writing for BioEdge, a news website that focuses on bioethics, wrote an article about ectogenesis. Ectogenesis refers to a human embryo or fetus developing in an artificial environment outside of the woman’s uterus. Scientists recently kept premature lamb fetuses alive in an artificial environment, so hopes are high that they can eventually develop artificial womb technology to keep human embryos and fetuses alive if the woman absolutely does not want to be pregnant. Many are touting this as exciting technology that could essentially end the abortion debate.
Judith Jarvis Thomson, in her famous essay
about abortion, argued that simply having a right to an abortion does not grant a woman a right to a dead baby. The reason abortion is justified, as a proponent of bodily rights would argue, is because the child is violating the right to the woman’s bodily autonomy and the state should not legally compel a woman to remain plugged in as life support to the developing embryo/fetus. She compared pregnancy to a famous, unconscious violinist. But, she conceded, the right to unplug from this violinist does not grant you the right to slit the violinist’s throat. So if the woman could be unplugged from the unborn child without killing him, that would be ethically preferred. According to the aforementioned article, some bioethicists, such as Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis, both from the University of Toronto, agree with Thomson’s position that a right to abortion does not include a right to a dead fetus.
The possibility of artificial wombs does raise some ethical concerns. For example, considering how important pregnancy is, does a woman have a right to separate herself from her developing child in order to avoid the burdens of pregnancy, even if she intends to keep the child? At the very least, pro-life people can agree that if a woman intends to abort her child, allowing the child to survive in an artificial womb and allowing the child to be given for adoption would be preferable. I think many abortion-choice people, such as Thomson, Mathison, and Davis, could agree that if a woman intends to abort, it would be preferable to place the child in an artificial womb since a right to abortion does not ipso facto guarantee a right to a dead fetus.
However, not all abortion-choice advocates would jump on the bandwagon. As much as I would love artificial womb technology to end the abortion debate, the reality is that many who are involved with abortions are not simply seeking to make the woman un-pregnant; they are actively seeking the death of the child. Look no further than doctors who will kill a child born alive after an “unsuccessful abortion
,” and abortion-choice advocates and organizations that oppose “infant born alive” bills which prohibit such killings.
According to the article, Joona Rasanen offers the following argument that a right to abortion also grounds a right to a dead fetus (see the BioEdge article for the original source):
…if ectogenesis abortions become reality, some women (and men) will have genetic children out there who carry their genetic material without their consent. In this scenario, their right to genetic privacy has been violated, and the only way to avoid this is if they have a right to the death of the fetus…[and] there is yet another way to claim that the genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus: the genetic parents own the fetus, and because of that, their property rights are violated if the fetus is gestated in an artificial womb without their consent.
There are a number of things wrong with Rasanen’s arguments.
First, it’s simply barbaric to consider the fetus to be property of the mother. We used to consider black people property and that was a gross denial of their human dignity. Fetuses are human beings at a very early stage of development. Calling them property is dehumanizing.
Second, Rasanen doesn’t seem to understand that the fetus’ genetic material is not the woman’s; it comes from the woman (and the man), but it is not identical to her genetic material. This kind of argument would work against cloning her against her will, but not against a child existing against her will just because he or she came from her genetic material.
Third, this argument proves too much. What if a woman has a daughter, and her daughter then, at the appropriate age, has a child, but the mother doesn’t want the grandchild for whatever reason? This argument would justify the mother forcing her daughter to have an abortion, or killing the child once the child is outside the womb, because this child is allegedly violating the grandmother’s “right to genetic privacy.” In fact, it would justify the woman’s boyfriend or husband forcing the woman, herself, to have an abortion because the child would be violating his “right to genetic privacy,” and she would be violating it by not having the abortion.
Fourth, why would a violation of her “right to genetic privacy” bring a death sentence? Someone who steals my car is violating my right to property ownership, but that certainly doesn’t justify my killing the thief. Perhaps the argument is that it would bring a death sentence because that is the only way to preserve the woman’s (and man’s) “right to genetic privacy.” But of course, then the argument that abortion is impermissible at any time during pregnancy due to the fetus gaining personhood rights would be negated. This would grant the parents the right to kill the child at any age, even as an adult, because there is someone walking around violating this alleged right. If your argument, though, is that it’s permissible at some points because the fetus is not a person, then impermissible at some other point because he gains personhood rights, then it’s your personhood argument that is doing the work of justifying your abortion-choice stance and not any right to genetic privacy.
These arguments simply don’t justify killing the embryo or fetus, especially if artificial womb technology becomes a reality. But what do you think? Will artificial wombs put an end to the debate? Are they a good thing? If you consider yourself pro-choice, what do you think about artificial wombs, and will the death of the embryo/fetus still be justified if they become a reality?
[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]