Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and author of the bestselling novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard ruminating on the future beyond natural human ability.
Of all the transhumanist technologies coming in the near future, one stands out that both fascinates and perplexes people. It's called ectogenesis: raising a fetus outside the human body in an artificial womb.
It has the possibility to change one of the most fundamental acts that most humans experience: the way people go about having children. It also has the possibility to change the way we view the female body and the field of reproductive rights.
Naturally, it's a social and political minefield.
The term ectogenesis was coined in 1924 by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane. He predicted by 2074 only 30 percent of births would be human births. Science has grown much quicker than he realized, and his take is probably much too conservative. Some futurists like myself (I’m also married to an ObGyn) think ectogenesis will be here in 20 years, and widely used in 30 years around the world.
It’s not an entirely speculative concept; scientists are actively working on developing the technology, primarily for medical reasons. In an article for Reproductive Health and Social Justice, a daily nonprofit publication providing news and analysis on sexual and reproductive health and justice issues, journalist Soraya Chemaly discussed two leading scientists in the ectogenesis field and their projects:
There are two commonly cited endeavors in progress. Focusing on finding ways to save premature babies, Japanese professor Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University, has successfully gestated goat embryos in a machine that holds amniotic fluid in tanks.
On the other end of the process focusing on helping women unable to conceive and gestate babies, is Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu, Director of the Reproductive Endocrine Laboratory at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University. Quietly, in 2003, she and her team succeeded in growing a mouse embryo, almost to full term, by adding engineered endometrium tissue to a bio-engineered, extra-uterine “scaffold.”
More recently, she grew a human embryo, for ten days in an artificial womb. Her work is limited by legislation that imposes a 14-day limit on research projects of this nature. As complicated as it is, her goal is a functioning external womb.
The ectogenesis technology itself is highly complicated, though somewhat simple looking. Basically, it appears as an amniotic fluid-filled aquarium with a bunch of feeding tubes and monitoring cables attached to a live, developing organism. Those tubes bring the nutrients, oxygen, etc needed to grow an organism and help it survive; the cables monitor everything going on inside the tank. There’s certainly a Matrix feel to it all.
While much of the technology for starting to experiment with artificially growing a human fetus already exists, bona fide human trials are likely at least a decade off, largely due to the murky legal and ethical implications of the controversial concept.
No doubt, propagating the species without the need for the human body sounds insanely far-fetched. And even if it’s achievable, there’s the question of whether people would be comfortable using it. I would argue yes, and the reasons are simple: Besides being painful, laborious, and time consuming, giving birth is still medically dangerous to mothers.
Furthermore, the advent of ectogenesis would mean females would no longer have to solely bear the responsibility of childbirth, or ponder the stressful questions often faced while carrying a child in one's body for nine months: Is there lead in the house water I drink, potentially affecting my child's neurological development? Will the flu virus I caught at work damage my baby's forming body? Did the half glass of wine I drank the other night lower my kid's potential IQ?
But perhaps an even more important reason has to do with the health of the babies themselves. Natural birth is filled with perils, and ectogenesis could potentially offer a safe alternative. The theory is that every heartbeat, kick, and moment of a fetus's life could be carefully monitored, from zygote to the moment the baby takes its first breath of air. Every nutrient the fetus gets would be measured, every movement it makes would be filmed, every heartbeat would be analyzed for proper timing.
As with all new technology, traditional biological and social customs could give way to newer practices promising safety, efficiency, and practicality. However, if ectogenesis seems like a slam dunk, it's not. It's rife with both philosophical and political concerns.
It would further unchain women from the home and extend the age women can have children
The most frequent philosophical issue brought up about ectogenesis is how it might change the way society views women. Will the feminine mystique be lost by such an artificial process replacing what’s been long a mainstay of the female domain? My short answer is no; rather, ectogenesis could further unchain women from the home, spare them and extend the age at which women can have children.
Still, some feminists view ectogenesis with skepticism, saying it will hand over women's sacred birthing ability to science. In an essay in the book Feminist Perspectives in Medical Ethics, Julien S. Murphy, chair of the philosophy department and professor of philosophy at University of Southern Maine, wrote that ectogenesis has sparked "disagreement among feminists."
The politics are just as complicated; after all, reproductive rights and procreation are some of the most divisive and loaded topics in Washington right now. It’s likely people with conservative social views or certain religious concerns would rally hard against the technology, which threatens to disrupt the symbiotic bond that the sexes have in traditional society.
Some have also suggested an artificial womb leaves a growing fetus without the immediate intimacy its mother’s body provides. Professor and journalist John Nassivera writes in America, The National Catholic Review, "I can tell you that this deprivation is a very serious thing."
Meanwhile, the pro-ectogenesis argument is that artificial wombs could make life easier and safer for mothers and fetuses, not to mention allow women who have damaged or medically dysfunctional uteruses to bear children. Similarly, some bioethicists have suggested ectogenesis could also free up homosexual couples and single men from having to use surrogate mothers to bear their children.
Regardless what happens in the future, ectogenesis is destined to become one of hottest topics of the transhumanist future, providing a gateway for how our tech-imbued species views itself, and the way our children will enter the sphere of life.