In The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, the feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone made a case for “ectogenesis” on the basis that it liberated women from “the tyranny of their reproductive biology”. Ectogenesis – the development of a foetus outside a woman’s body, in an artificial womb – would, Firestone proposed, help to bring about greater gender equality by diffusing childbearing and childrearing to “society as a whole”.
At that time, IVF was still highly experimental, and far from the multi-million pound industry it is today. Now scientists in Britain are able to sustain a human embryo outside a woman’s body for at least 13 days – possibly more, although the “14-day rule” on embryo experimentation forbids this.
And what of “artificial wombs” for more developed babies? Recently, scientists announced that they successfully gestated premature lambs in “biobags” filled with laboratory-made amniotic fluid. Many hope that such technology can be used for premature human babies one day and, indeed, the first clinical trial could happen in the next three years.
The thought of “babies in bags” is perhaps frightening to some, but in a way these biobags are simply extensions of current incubator technology. Incubators are effectively artificial wombs, because they too make up for the absence of a maternal uterus in helping premature babies develop.
And it is thanks to incubators that we have learnt to recognise just how changeable foetal “viability” is. In the 1970s, babies were only considered viable at around 28 weeks. Today we tend to put that number at 24 or even 23 weeks. Biobags might well bring that down even further.
Such “partial ectogenesis” – sustaining babies already born, though premature, in some device – can certainly do much good. But our present technological capabilities also raise the spectre of “complete ectogenesis”, where a new life is conceived in vitro and put inside an artificial womb all the way up to “birth”. We are probably still many years away from that, but we may see it in our lifetimes.
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