BY: DANIEL KORN
Ectogenesis is the process of raising a fetus in an artificial womb outside the body. According to a 1987 paper by David N. James, the term was coined by British pop biologist J.B.S. Haldane in 1924. The proposed technology consists of spherical pods filled with amniotic fluid, attached to a complicated series of feeding tubes and monitoring cables; imagine the red sacs that humans in The Matrix are held in and you’ve got the right idea. Haldane believed that ectogenesis would be commonly used to raise fetuses within the 20th century, and that by 2074 only 30 percent of all births would be natural.
This seems like wishful thinking, but it turns out that Haldane might not be too far off. As noted by Soraya Chemaly on Reproductive & Sexual Health and Justice, two leaps in progress have been made in regards to the development of ectogenesis technology. At Juntendo University in Tokyo, Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara “successfully gestated goat embryos in a machine that holds amniotic fluid in tanks.” Meanwhile, Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University was recently able to grow a human embryo in an artificial womb for ten days, though her work is currently limited to a 14-day limit imposed by legislation for this type of highly-controversial research project. Chemaly also explains that predictions for the full realization of ectogenesis technology range anywhere from 10 to 60 years. Realistically, ten is probably on the short side—it’s going to take a long time to sort out the ethics of even testing the technology, never mind using it in mainstream medicine—but 60? That’s more than do-able.
At Juntendo University in Tokyo, Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara successfully gestated goat embryos in a machine that holds amniotic fluid in tanks.
There are a lot of potential advantages to ectogenesis. It would free women from both the pain of childbirth itself and the harrowing nine months of pregnancy leading up to it. The health of the baby could be closely monitored at every step, so that any abnormalities could be detected—and, ostensibly, fixed—the moment they happen. And it would also possibly allow women with damaged uteruses to bear children, and let single men and homosexual couples do so without the use of a surrogate mother.
The negatives are mostly sociopolitical. Reproductive rights are a huge issue right now, with laws in North America that are woefully inadequate in regards to giving a woman the choice of what to do with her own body. These will only get more complicated when a fetus can be grown without the biological taxation of a pregnancy; a paper by Vernellia and Tshaka Randall suggests that the ability to extract an unwanted fetus might actually make certain states more likely to ban abortion, as the pregnancy would no longer have any ill health effects on the mother.
Ectogenesis would possibly allow women with damaged uteruses to bear children, and let single men and homosexual couples do so without the use of a surrogate mother.
Then there’s the more metaphysical question of whether ectogenesis is another in a long sequence of ways that we’re getting more and more detached from our nature. I’ve grappled with this question myself, resulting in the following thought process:
From the outset, anything that allows people who want children to have them in a safer, more-likely-to-succeed manner is a good thing. That being said, I don’t necessarily think everything should be easy. Childbirth is one of those landmark moments in people’s lives, a big tentpole event that well and truly means something. Should that be easy? Is the nine months of getting sick, staying off one’s feet, not imbibing, something that should be eliminated? Is part of the power of childbirth the pain and suffering that one has to go through to get to that moment? This is a conclusion I can’t actually make, because as a man, I don’t have to experience these things; if I end up going through the process, it’s merely in a support role.
The process looks like something straight out of The Matrix. Feeding tubes and monitoring cables are attached to a live developing organism that floats in a fluid-filled aquarium.
At the same time, I’m worried about a future generation losing the concept of “birth stories.” In her autobiography Yes Please, Amy Poehler talks about how she likes to ask people she’s just met to tell her the story of their birth—what the day was like, how they got to the hospital, how the parents acted. These stories, argues Poehler, are the first part of a person’s history, one that nakedly illuminates the various temperaments of their parents, and is something that should be treasured. I don’t want that to be done away with in favour of “I was born in a pod like every other baby.”
But tell that to someone who’s lost a child at-birth. I assume most parents would happily trade that one story for a lifetime of them, and at the end of the day, looping back around to where I started, that’s probably the most important point. People who want biological kids should have the safest way possible of getting them, and if ectogenesis turns out to be the way to do it, then regardless of its complications, it’s a net positive in my books.
It has the possibility to alter one of the most fundamental experiences of Human existence: the way we bring life into the world. It also has the possibility to alter the way society views the female body and the concept of reproductive rights.