Ectogenesis: Abortion Debate Solved
Would-be mothers sometimes have compelling interests in aborting—to keep a job or continue college or maintain a marriage. But unborn developing humans (UDHs) have great moral value—they’re potential persons, and in the later stages of pregnancy, already possess many of the features of personhood (consciousness, ability to feel pleasure & pain, ability to form rudimentary relationships, ability to experience emotions, etc). Since ending pregnancy has traditionally meant ending a life, policies have had to prioritize one party’s interests over the other’s. But what if the tension could be resolved?
Ectogenesis—incubating unborn developing humans with advanced neonatal technologies or genetically altered non-human hosts—promises to do just that. Imagine if anytime a woman decided she didn’t want to continue a pregnancy, doctors could simply remove the UDH and incubate elsewhere. Abortion debate solved. Almost.
One concern is how to do it. Sweedish philosopher Stellan Welin entertains the possibility of transferring UDHs into genetically modified pigs. And given progress toward transplanting pig organs into humans, this sounds technologically promising. But it also sounds gross! Growing UDHs in pigs might be preferable to termination, but who wants their baby’s momma to be a bona fide swine?
More palatable would be advanced neonatal technologies. With the viability date inching earlier every year, machines that can grow a UDH from conception to 9 months may simply be a matter of time.
Another concern is whether a UDH’s genetic mother should have a say in whether it lives or dies. Assuming the woman does indeed have a prima facie right to control her body, does that right extend beyond simply having a UDH removed into decisions about whether it’s subsequently nurtured or terminated?
I say no. Just as every serious person in the abortion debate recognizes that women sometimes have serious reasons to abort, they also recognize that UDHs possess great moral value. Just as pregnancy is a dangerous, often difficult and burdensome undertaking, UDHs are not simple clumps of cells—they’re potential persons. Were ectogenesis an option, relieving a potential mother of the burden of pregnancy would no longer require termination. With her interests intact, I see no reason why the genetic mother should be empowered with life and death authority. Authority over her body, yes. But assuming it’s healthy, not over the UDH’s life. (In cases where the UDH suffers some genetic defect, a case can be made the parents’ wishes should have great weight, along with considerations of the UDH’s expected quality of life. But notice that since ectogenesis relieves the mother of the burden of pregnancy, this opens the possibility to equally weight the father’s input.)
And one last worry concerns money. If there were ever an imperative to pursue a technology, this is it. But research isn’t cheap.
Solution? Given the state’s obligation to promote current and future citizens’ interests, this is clearly something Uncle Sam ought to fund. (Sorry NASA—this takes priority.) Also, if they only knew about it, I suspect religious organizations would fight over the opportunity to throw money at this. Pro-life groups–spend your money here, not on distasteful posters.
Special thanks to colleague Dustin Nelson for initially broaching the subject, to Stellan Welin for the inspiring article “Reproductive Ectogenesis: The Third Era of Human Reproduction and some Moral Consequences,” and to my Fall 09 Professional Responsibility students at UT for thinking through this issue with me. And if anyone out there knows of researchers taking this possibility seriously, put us in touch–would love to help write their PR materials.