Brave New World: Should Engineers Continue To Develop Ectogenesis?

Group 66

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.

12 thoughts on “Brave New World: Should Engineers Continue To Develop Ectogenesis?

  1. Pursuing gender equality by changing the natural processes involved with being human may be dangerous to society in many ways. Although removing the pain from a woman when giving birth would make birth more bearable, it also removes the natural, bodily processes involved with reproduction. This also removes the opportunity for males to support their spouse and to grow the natural loving bond experienced through this, which is a consequence of removing the natural responsibility of the female. In this sense, it may be seen as moving away from gender equality, by preventing the natural responsibilities of genders. Further, pursuing gender equality by altering the natural processes would ultimate spark an ethical debate as to whether we are trying to move to a single gender society, as opposed to embracing the harmony of both sides. The labour involved with child birth can bond couples through the dualistic nature of reproduction. Tampering with the key to human existence may therefore have broad implications on society. This is because the natural behaviour of both the male and female is observed in many situations in our society and changing the way humans reproduce in order to prevent labour may disturb the balance of male and female. On the other hand, same sex and trans couples may have use for such a method. In this sense, for couples in which nature results in their incompatibility, using an unnatural process may be valid.

    Artificial gestation is also yet to be evaluated in the long term. Although the focus may be on those wanting to conceive, the implications on the baby are not well understood. The impact of taking a growing human out of the context of natural order and hence removing the complex chemical processes that lead to development may have long-term health implications. Hormonal processes, the delivery of digested food and water and the careful monitoring of development may need to be accurately replicated in order to prevent this.

    For parents, in may be ethical if agreed upon by both. For the baby however, without certainty that the method may not cause future problems, it is hard to justify it is an ethical decision. This may also then lead to the responsibility of those who design and engineer this method and how they are held accountable for mistakes, as the babies initial development is now no longer the responsibility of the parents.

  2. This is an interesting topic and one that can stir up a lot of emotions too.

    My thoughts on this are concerned with whether a bond forms between a mother and the child growing inside her. With ectogenesis, this bond may not form (assuming that it does).

    I don’t think most people worry about the human race, the gene pool or indeed who is going to pay their pension when they are thinking about having a child – rather their main concern is how sharing the child’s upbringing will contribute to the quality of their relationship. Since I wrote that last sentence with a focus on being gender-neutral that perhaps suggests support for ectogenesis.

    I think my take on ectogenesis is that as a technology for those who can not have children via one of their wombs (due to the absence of a womb or other conditions) then it is acceptable. However, if some natural benefits of pregnancy are lost such as decreased immunity and lack of child-parent bond then it shouldn’t be considered as an option for those who do have a womb.

  3. I would like to focus on the abovementioned point about Kant’s ethics. According to him, a human being, a person, cannot be treated as a means aimed at obtaining an end. 

    Kant’s point on ethics is summarised in this article when the author claims that “Kantian ethics believes that people (as rational beings) should be treated with respect and dignity,[…]”

    As human beings possess the trait of reasoning, they are able to decide their destiny, to auto-determine themselves. Animals, on the other hand, are subject to their natural desires and inclinations.  What makes human beings different from any other animal is the capacity of reason, which allows us to get over our animal impulses. That’s what Kant understand when using the concept of “person”, inspired by a long and old tradition of thought (Aristotle also defined humankind in virtue of its reason). 

    However, it is worth noting that there is a significant difference between the concept of “human being” and the concept of “person”. The former is usually used to classify human beings as a species, namely, Homo sapiens sapiens. It’s a biological-taxonomical category. The use of systematic names and human taxonomy started to be introduced in the 18th century when modern Biology was in its infancy. In this way, the concept “person” is used by Kant in a different sense than what we understand by “human being”. In  Kant’s thought, the essence of a person is reason. The essence of being a person is having use of reason. We are what we are because we have the capacity to think rationally, by means of language. And because of that, according to Kant, people must be treated as an end.

    Therefore, when quoting Kant we should never interchange the concept “person” and the concept “human being” unless we understand their different connotations.

    Once noted this, let’s quote the conclusion drawn in this article after pointing to Kant’s ethics: 

    “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.”

    I can see here an easy interchange of categories, as now we are not talking about human beings nor people, but using a different concept: embryos. Two questions come to my mind: 1) are embryos human beings, i.e., is human beings=embryos possible? We could say that an embryo is a human being in development.

    The other question is 2), are embryos=people (taking the concept as Kant used it)? The negative answer is logical, because embryos do not have the capacity of reason. According to psychologist Jean Piaget, not even babies (imagine embryos) have, at the first stages of life, the capacity to distinguish between themselves and the rest of the universe. The famous Swiss psychologist noted and studied how newborn babies cannot control their bodies, their sphincter, or their senses. The new brain has to learn how to use them, how to recognise and relate patterns, to look at the world and interpret the visual information. They are not aware of having a body, in other words, they have not developed “the sense of self”. Imagine, how far away is this situation from a person who is able to reason.

    In conclusion, if we stick to Kant’s thought and definitions, treating embryos as a means to an end is not unethical, as an embryo is not, in Kant’s framework, a person, as they have no reason.

    Apart from formal and academical matters, more interesting questions can arise from these thoughts. What is what makes human beings what they are? Of course, physiognomy, bodies, etc, but more importantly, essential traits like superior intelligence or language. Other animals can have similar physonogmies or bodies, monkeys for instance, but they don’t have superior intelligence nor language.

    We test with animals, which don’t have superior intelligence, and we are legitimate by law to do so because is not consider unethical by legislation. What’s the essential different then between an animal and an embryo, with no intelligence, and incapable of self perception?

    I feel huge empathy for animals and embryos, but when I try to justify why one thing is ethical or not, it’s difficult to find an answer. We make the most horrible things to animals at the expense of suffering, as a way to make scientific progress and prevent us from illnesses and suffering.

    Is it ethical to make other weaker beings suffer as a way to survive? I don’t know, but it seems that this is the way nature works: survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle.

    As superior beings, should we be over the jungle? Probably yes. It’s impossible to avoid suffering and we have to struggle and fight for survival. Perhaps, embryos suffer less and are less aware of suffering (have they even developed pain receptors?) than some animals we experiment with.


    George Butterworth (1992) Origins of Self-Perception in Infancy, Psychological Inquiry, 3:2, 103-111, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0302_1

    AMA Manninen BA. Are human embryos Kantian persons?: Kantian considerations in favor of embryonic stem cell research. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2008;3:4. Published 2008 Jan 31. doi:10.1186/1747-5341-3-4,

  4. I believe that whilst Ectogenesis provides an amazing opportunity to mothers the theory of utility can be used to oppose its research and introduction. Its use would in some cases lead to the most pleasure found, avoiding the most pain, yet this does not take into account access to this method as an issue. Ectogenesis will likely for the foreseeable future be a vastly expensive technique, only available to the very rich, which conceivably would cause pain to those unable to afford it though they are in need.

  5. Well quite an interesting topic. Personally I beleive that science is a doubt edge sword: when we use it properly it makes wonders and when misused it creates raves. Likewise a knife could be use to make a nice meal a feed people or it can also be used to kill someone. Depending on the circumstances Ectogenesis could be ethical or not.

    I find it ethical when it comes in play to help those childless women that are desperately looking for a way to conceive but it becomes unethical when we just want to use it because we don’t want to go through the natural way of pregnancy. The world is a so perfect equilibrium state that whenever we affect one aspect negatively a balance will be created. Giving birth is a natural process though it is painful. It allows the mother to bond with the child and create a connection which creates a society that is led by people with bonds and emotion while the other methods brings human being to life that could be raised by anyone with no emotions or bonds leading to a “lifeless” society… in conclusion, there are no good or bad decisions, they are just positive or negative consequences.

  6. I do not see how it can be seen as unethical to try and develop a technology that allows people who are medically unable to have children to reproduce. However, I think the ethical dilemma comes it when you discuss extending this technology to the general population and making it the default form of reproduction. I agree that there are several ethical dilemmas with this approach and one that you don’t consider is accidental pregnancies. Women who accidently got pregnant would be obvious for all to see and could be embarrassed and feel shames by strangers in public places. This would further increase the pressure on women to abort accidental pregnancies but not for a good reason.

    One other point I have is regarding your survey results. You present them without any details on who was interviewed. Did you survey a wide range of demographics in order to get a representative view of society? If the survey is just of university students at the university of Sheffield that is just one small demographic of what is not just a national but an international ethical question. It is my assumption that the latter is the case, in which case I think the presentation of the poll results is misrepresentative and misleading.

  7. SkiCheif96, so what you’re saying then is that it is alright then that women should have to make the choice between a career or a family? Where they face judgement on giving up on their aspirations or being seen as callous should they choose to delay having a family?

      1. Evolution is brought about by servival of the fittest, and so in this respect, women who would otherwise struggle with childbirth because of narrow hips etc would become more prevelent in society. We would be engineering out the very possibility of being able to give birth via natural means

          1. Eugenics? Do you even know what that means?? It is the idea of improving a society/species via selective breeding. If anything, the method of ectogenesis allows the possibility of eugenics to become more prevelent. Stuff like this is already happening! The idea of ‘designer babies’ via IVF, and on average, women’s hips are becoming narrower and thus child birth becoming more of an issue as the use of C-sections are becoming more common place

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