By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. Over the last few months there’s been, if not a surge, at least an uptick in commentary over the possibility of an artificial womb. Dr. O’Bannon wrote about this previously and it seemed a good time to provide readers a second chance to read his insights and offer new readers his insights.
With artificial wombs moving from the realm of science fiction to scientific fact, abortion sympathizers are starting to get concerned about the ethical and legal implications.
In an article from Gizmodo titled “How New Technology Could Threaten a Woman’s Right to Abortion,” reporter Kristen V. Brown says that an “artificial womb” recently successfully used by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to bring several premature sheep to viability (ability to survive outside the womb) presents real problems for abortion advocates. (NRL News Today wrote about this new technology.)
This could “complicate – and even jeopardize – the right to abortion in an America in which that right is predicated on whether a fetus is ‘viable’,” says Brown.
While Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton essentially authorized abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy, in 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court asserted that “viability” was a key milestone in the state’s ability to intervene on behalf of the unborn child.
In Casey, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said this standard put Roe v. Wade on a “collision course with itself” as technology would inevitably push fetal viability back earlier and earlier in pregnancy.
When abortion was first declared legal by the Supreme Court, viability was considered to occur somewhere around the beginning of the third trimester. Today, babies born at 24 weeks’ gestation (pregnancy measured from a woman’s last menstrual period, fetal age would be about 22 weeks) often make it and babies born as early as 22 weeks (20 weeks fetal age) have sometimes survived.)
But what if technology could make it so that even younger unborn children could make it to viability, albeit outside the woman’s womb? The idea is not so farfetched as once thought. Brown says that researchers are hoping to test the artificial womb on human babies within the next five years.
“The Supreme Court has pegged the constitutional treatment of abortion to the viability of a fetus,” I. Glenn Cohen, a Harvard bioethicist, told Brown. “This has the potential to really disrupt things, first by asking the question of whether a fetus could be considered ‘viable’ at the time of abortion if you could place it in an artificial womb.” Brown writes
In the future, Cohen said, it stands to reason that this technology could save the lives of fetuses born even earlier. Imagine then, that you had made the decision to terminate a pregnancy at 18 weeks, but that such a technology technically made it viable for the fetus to be born at that point in development, then finish developing outside the womb. Would an abortion still be legal?
“It could wind up being that you only have the right to an abortion up until you can put [a fetus] in the artificial womb,” said Cohen. “It’s terrifying.”
Brown says that the new technology offers a real test of the legal and ethical arguments made for a “woman’s right to control her own body.”
“Under that logic,” says Brown, “the law could simply compel a woman to put her fetus into an external womb, giving her back control of her body but still forcing her into parenthood.”
In paraphrasing Prof. Cohen, Brown says that while Cohen told her the law has thus far been interpreted to claim that “a woman has a right to stop carrying a child,” it does not consider “whether she also has a right to control what happens to the child if she is no longer responsible for carrying it.”
The question Brown and Cohen appear to be asking is whether a woman’s “right” to have the baby removed from her womb [traditionally by an abortion] also entails a right to decide whether that baby is given a chance to live.
As Cohen put it in an article for the Hastings Center Report, “How would an artiﬁcial womb inﬂect the state’s ability to regulate pregnancy under existing law?”
If it becomes possible for the mother to abort with a method that leaves the baby alive and intact (by something that Cohen speculates might be “minimally invasive surgery beginning at 18 weeks”), can a mother then refuse to allow her baby to be put into an artificial womb where the child could further develop for a few more weeks and be “born” healthy?
Brown sketches out what is for abortion defenders a looming legal and ethical dilemma and notes how doctors, bioethicists, and lawyers “have long taken issue with viability as a standard for legality.”
This new technology just further exposes the problematic nature of their premises.
The child’s being alive has always been a problem for abortion’s defenders. “There have always been problems with this standard,” Cohen told Brown gloomily. “But now there’s reason to believe it could get even worse.”