Ectogenesis is the “the development of embryos in artificial conditions outside the uterus”. In 2002, scientists at Cornel University claimed their first success in artificial womb research, created an artificial womb by cultivating endometrial cells on an artificial biodegradable scaffolding. Spurred to multiply with growth hormones and oestrogen, the cells took the shape of the scaffolding, modelling themselves into an “artificial uterus”. More recently, it has moved closer to a “science-fact” that science fiction with the support of premature lambs outside of the womb.
Ectogenesis is a controversial topic, the question remains: “Is it ethical to develop this technology for use?”
It seems that the medical benefits of ectogenesis are the clearest. Therefore, implementing this technology could benefit society as a whole. The United Kingdom, like many other affluent Western societies, is apparently in the grip of declining fertility. The resultant strain on the economy caused by an aging population is being exacerbated by what has been characterized as the “selfishness” of women who delay reproduction in their efforts to secure financial and social status before starting a family. These women would start thinking about having a child in their mid-30s, an age at which according to research is predictor of serious morbidity in pregnancy and childbirth. For many, the fertility in their 30s may have declined significantly. Therefore, women are encouraged to curb their other interests and aspirations in order to have children at biologically and socially optimal times, reemphasizing that it is womenwho take on the risks, whereas society profits from these sacrifices. This situation suggest a prima facie injustice. Therefore, ectogenesis would be beneficial to women and help toward mitigating the injustice.
Furthermore, ectogenesis would establish an equality between men and women in their contribution toward the reproduction of the human race, rather than putting an onus on women. Pregnancy is a condition that causes pain and suffering, and that affects only women. The fact that men do not have to go through pregnancy to have a genetically related child is a natural inequality. This technology would induce less pain for women and promote gender equality. A survey showed that 59% of women would choose ectogenesis as an alternative.
The technology would also provide benefits for same–sex couples and trans people by removing the need for surrogacy. This industry, in itself, can be seen as unethical. Especially at transnational level, where it can be argued as exploitive, with additional risks of the surrogate becoming attached to the unborn child, and the expenses involved with the process. Hence, this technology could not only reduce gender inequality, but discrimination based on sexual orientation.
On the utilitarianism point of view, ectogenesis is ethical. This theory makes the consequences of the action, central to its moral judgement; the action purpose has to be something that has intrinsic value, good in itself. As discussed earlier, ectogenesis would result in justice, gender equality and eradicate the pregnancy pain. Arguably, these consequences have intrinsic value: “that which provide pleasure and avoid pain is good,” said Jeremy Bentham. This is further supported by the utility principle by which an action can be good or bad: according to the survey, more women would be happy to use this alternative option.
Exogenesis may lead to “natural” birth being stigmatised and associated with poverty or negligence. Visible pregnancies would become an object of pity and contempt for taking perceived risks with the mother’s (and their child’s) life. Knowing that ectogenesis may lead to discrimination makes anyone helping its advancement immoral according to virtue ethics. This ethics system focuses on the moral character rather than duty or consequences, and continuing to develop a technology that could lead to discrimination means not following the “techno-moral” virtues of Justice and Empathy .
Research shows that breast milk from a mother provides benefits to a child that formula milk cannot, including reducing a child’s risk of developing asthma or allergies, providing antibodies to fight illnesses and leading to increased IQ scores in later childhood, but without a pregnancy, women often require hormone therapy to produce breast milk. Birth control pills can be used for the hormones, but can lead to a variety of side effects, including nausea, weight gain and mood changes and as a result, women will be less likely to breastfeed following exogenesis, than if they could naturally do so. Knowing that breast milk would benefit the child and choosing to feed them alternatives shows a lack of care for the child and a degree of self-interest from the mother and therefore is immoral according to virtue ethics.
If people were turning to exogenesis, when there were children available for adoption then this would be immoral according to virtue ethics, as the people making this decision would be acting out of self-interest and would be showing a lack of consideration for those children, who would have the opportunity to be adopted into a new family. It can also be argued that in pursuit of their own pleasure those people who support and make use of exogenesis are denying those adoptive children pleasure and this is immoral according to the Freedom Principle.
Development of ectogenesis will require the use of embryos to improve the artificial womb system. Kantian ethics believes that people (as rational beings) should be treated with respect and dignity, therefore it is unethical to treat a human as “a means to an end” the humans should be the “end” themselves. Working within this framework continued development of ectogenesis is unethical, as it would depend upon using embryos as a means to achieve the goal of a functioning technology.
On the balance of the arguments, we believe that ectogenesis is ethical and therefore engineers and scientists should continue work to develop this technology for the better of society.