Social Narratives

Ectogenesis, and the future of reproduction

With a large number of topics under the umbrella of genetic advancement in modern medicine coming into the public forum, questions of morality and ethicality come with them. One of these issues is ectogenesis, or the possibility thereof, and how it’s perceived. Media and pop culture have made it easier for people to imagine these technologies impacting us in fantastic ways. The concept of an artificial womb, though not possible with today’s technology, seems more like science-fiction than it should, perhaps.

Ectogenesis, a term coined by J.B.S. Haldane in his seminal work Daedalus; or, Science & the Future, refers to the gestation of a human embryo in an artificial womb. He predicted that by 2074 only 30% of births would be human births. The process involves IVF, with the fertilized embryo being implanted into the artificial womb instead of back into the mother’s uterus. Many people see it as playing god. Many more would benefit from one, were it to exist.

As Jessica H. Schulz states in her paper in the Chicago-Kent Law Review, “Ectogenesis could help those who cannot carry a pregnancy have genetic children without a surrogate and could also save the lives of premature babies.” Surely the gay community, those suffering from infertility, and mothers unable to give birth would be interested in the notion of an artificial womb. The issue is very complex in it’s social, economic, and political implications. What’s more, the importance of a physical bond between child and mother can’t be forgotten, as well as the what this would mean politically, with current views around the world on abortion and religion. 

Were you to google the topic, many of the top results question, or at least mention that others are questioning, the ethics of ectogenesis. It’s the same story with most new genetic advances in medicine. During the gestation of the first IVF baby in 1978, Louise Brown’s mother received hate mail and death threats from around the world regarding her decision to use IVF. When Louise was born, healthy and normal, it showed the world that things weren’t so black and white. 

Ectogenesis exists at a complex, highly contreversial intersection of medecine, bioethics, and reproductive politics. The advent of the artificial womb would change these arenas of medicine and debate forever, as well as the people given the opportunity to use one. In professional climates, too, where women feel social pressure to hide their pregnancies, ectogenesis would allow women to have babies on their own timetable, away from the prying eyes of supervisors and co-workers. As new data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows, pregnancy discrimination continues to affect women in all professional fields. If artificial wombs became an affordable option for working women, pregnancy discrimination could be avoided altogether by rendering gestation and childbirth completely invisible to employers and prospective employers alike. This seems perverse, but can’t be ignored as an implication of the artificial womb.

We are currently unable to fully and successfully gestate a child outside it’s mother’s womb, and there are major advances that need to be made before we can. Much current research is aimed at saving premature babies, lengthening the time embryos can survive outside the womb, which counts as indirect research into artificial wombs. Dr. Teruo Fujii’s “womb-on-a-chip” experiments are an example of that indirect research. In July 2007, Dr. Fujii and other researchers at the University of Tokyo reported that they had designed a “womb-on-a-chip,” lined with endometrial cells, which could hold fertilized eggs until they are ready for implantation. Studies with mice suggest that the womb chip could increase IVF success rates compared to the current system (embryos held in microdroplets). Dr. Fujii next plans to test the device with human embryos.

At least 12 countries, including the United Kingdom, bar scientists from working with embryos older than 14 days. The US government drew up guidelines suggesting the limit in 1979, on the basis that 14 days marks the beginning of gastrulation in humans. It is also around the latest point at which an embryo can split into identical twins. After this time, the logic goes, a unique individual comes into being. It’s easy to imagine the floodgates opening and public perception changing once the first child is born fully independent of it’s mother’s womb.

Regardless, we are living in a time when the mystery shrouding reproduction has lifted and the fetus is no longer inaccessible.

Nature has set a precedent for incubation; birds and reptiles and their eggs. Penguins, such as the rockhopper, are hatched and then protected/ kept warm by their parents while they incubate. This connection, regardless of the egg being outside the mother’s body, is seen as vital and natural nonetheless. Snakes lay multiple fertilized eggs at a time, and stay with them until they hatch.

Though there are examples of out-of-body- incubation in nature, they are all natural processes. The idea of an artificial human womb is strange, as it’s a departure from our normal birthing process, but research brings us closer every day. Were humans to incubate their children in a similar way, would it be all that strange? If it were at first, would it eventually be normalized, as IVF was? Imagine a future where the concept of an artificial womb was not only normal, with some percentage of the population opting to use one as opposed to a surrogate mother or adoption, and the concept of your child gestating in a machine not seeming as strange as it does now. My design is a critical look at this future, in which I’ll try to depict and humanize the alien concept of an artificial womb, and how future couples could/ would interact with one. 

The artefact is meant to stir debate, through an intentionally alien look, and commercial, sterile depiction of the child-rearing process. The negative and positives of it are for the viewer to decide upon, but the artificial womb of my design is undeniably fascinating concept, and something that we may be more comfortable with as time passes and medical technology and science-fiction begin to merge into one.