Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon in Philadelphia has been experimenting on fetal lambs with his new artificial womb, connecting the umbilical cords to an oxygenator that acts as a synthetic placenta. The “biobag” is filled with fluid so that the lamb is surrounded and can swallow the amniotic fluid just as it would in an actual womb.
This artificial womb has been successful with its lamb test subjects and will hopefully be used to save premature babies, especially those born as early as 22 weeks who have only a 50% chance of survival with current technology. One of the biggest advantages that the artificial womb provides is an environment for the premature baby’s lungs to grow until they are ready to breath on their own. Dr. Flake has mentioned that human testing might be 3 – 5 years away.
All of this doesn’t stop certain bioethicists to raise fundamentally Pro-Choice concerns. In an article from NPR, bioethicist Dena Davis suggested that the device may not be a good solution for human babies, “If it’s a question of a baby dying versus a baby being born who then needs to live its entire life in an institution, then I don’t think that’s better.” In the same article, bioethicist Scott Gelfand suggested that some states might use this technology to require women who are getting an abortion to instead place their fetus into the artificial wombs.
These two concerns suggest that human life is to be discarded if the person will be born with certain disabilities or if the mother does not want that person. We have seen, with the growing rate of abortions for fetuses with a possibility of having Down Syndrome (up to 90% are aborted in the UK and 100% in Iceland), that if a human might be a burden it is best not to keep them alive. The topic is so sensitive that the French courts pulled an ad last year that showed Down Syndrome people around the world discussing how much they loved their life and all the things they could do and had done, getting married, getting jobs, loving, laughing, and everything else humans hope to experience.
But for Davis, it is not a question whether the “baby” – the term she used – is a human life or not, because if it will live in an “institution” all the better that it dies earlier. What sort of ethic is that?
Gelfand, suggesting that states should not take babies that are to be aborted and keep them alive, raises the debate over when a person/fetus/premature baby can be officially considered a human. The artificial womb does not help the argument of viability which essentially claims that abortions should be legal until the baby can live outside of the womb. Technology has and will continue to push back the time of viability for the unborn, thus it is not a scientific determiner for when a person becomes a person.
The Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that states must put the interests of the pregnant woman ahead of the fetus until said fetus is “viable.” They defined “viable” as being capable of prolonged life outside of the womb. This definition of viability is odd enough regardless of technology. Without care, babies die even after they are born at 40 weeks. How long must this prolonged life be? A day? Dr. Flakes’ biobag makes the point further, that viability has nothing to do with the humanity of a fetus.
In the NPR article, Davis argues that, “Up to now, we’ve been either born or not born. This would be halfway born, or something like that. Think about that in terms of our abortion politics.” Perhaps Davis should think about that question in terms of when a person is a person. If, as Davis suggests this artificial womb demonstrates, being born or unborn does not change whether a fetus is a person then why should our “abortion politics” not reflect that?
Perhaps this is why abortionists do not rely on scientific evidence but on “choice.” (It is rather interesting how gender is now deemed a choice for the individual, but life is a choice for the mother.) The aptly named Pro-Choice movement does not care one iota when the heart beat starts (16 days in) or when the nervous system bursts on the scene (one of the first systems to develop), they care about the choice and freedom of the mother – the extent of that freedom of choice is a debate that the Pro-Choice movement seems largely to ignore. Life is a precious thing, and given the choice I’m sure that a baby would take Dr. Flake’s biobag over being aborted, even if a “life in an institution” awaits.