In a somewhat hastily written post yesterday, I noted that some of the issues we grapple with about abortion could be solved by a way to remove the fetus from an unwilling mother, and allow it to gestate without needing the mother.
But what if the choice is this: carry the pregnancy to term, or terminate the pregnancy while others do what they can to save the embryo/fetus? Aside from the gigantic technical hurdle, there are plenty of other issues that need to be resolved (who pays for it? what is the impact on the population? who raises the child after gestation?), but it changes the discussion completely. We could even use this technology to take away what I see as sex discrimination entering into the debate (anti-abortion laws mandating the only instance of violating body autonomy, and it only applying to women). There are folks who think that the biological father should have a say in whether or not the woman terminates the pregnancy…now he can have that say, as long as he’s willing to carry the pregnancy to term (and consents to the implantation of the artificial womb and surgical removal of it and the baby when ready). These are things that could become technically feasible in the future. Again, I somewhat doubt they will, because I don’t see much real motivation for it, but my crystal ball hasn’t worked very well for years (or ever).
Although I maintain my doubt that this will happen for an entire pregnancy (and think it could raise many new issues for us to fight over), a news story that I came across shortly after posting was a fun coincidence. Several outlets, including NPR (where I saw the story), reported that an artificial womb has been created, and was used successfully to raise fetal lambs for a month.
Of course, this is only for late-term fetuses, and whether or not it could work on early terminated pregnancies remains to be seen. The current process of abortion does not make any attempt to remove the fetus in whole form, and that may prove to be more difficult (especially without causing damage to the mother), but this is certainly a step in that direction. As I wrote yesterday, it does not address many issues that come with it, and these are things we will have to grapple with: the first of which is probably to come up with a short-hand term for this. What do we call babies that gestated in a bag? Bag babies? Artificial womb (AR) babies, ARBs? And who raises the ARBs after they emerge from the artificial womb? Do we fund enormous growth of institutional orphanages that raise kids until they can fend for themselves?
Not to mention the consequences of all of this on society. Sure, it would be great to get the abortion issue out of politics (for many of the things I mentioned yesterday: that it seems like people who would otherwise support social safety net programs are pulled away from the party that supports that, because of abortion), but what about bigger issues like the often debated Donohue-Levitt hypothesis that legalized abortion in the 1970s is a key factor in the reduced crime rates twenty years later. The Freakonomics blog has a good piece, more than a decade ago, describing the evidence and alternative hypotheses. It’s certainly worth a read.
Either way, this is a very interesting development, and a fun coincidence.