Read part one here.

According to the March of Dimes, the premature birth rate in the United States has been increasing over the past several years. In response, researchers focus on the prevention of this issue, as well as on treatments and solutions. Among these solutions is the potentially life-saving artificial womb. Although it is still only a theoretical possibility for human gestation, artificial wombs have been successfully tested in animal reproduction, and advanced incubators already save thousands of infants born prematurely every year, with some of these infants surviving when born as early as 18 weeks (David S. Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach 5). Some Catholic thinkers argue that, as this technology advances, it may provide an alternative to abortion.

In his article “Could Artificial Wombs End the Abortion Debate?” Catholic philosopher Christopher Kaczor highlights the potential of artificial womb technology to save lives that might otherwise be lost to abortion. He argues that although the Church explicitly condemns the use of artificial womb technology in Donum Vitae, it does so only in connection with the illicit practice of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Donum Vitae denounces the production and growth of a human person entirely outside of the human body. What remains officially unaddressed by the Magisterium is the question of whether the use of artificial wombs might be permissible as a treatment or form of rescue.

What remains officially unaddressed by the Magisterium is the question of whether the use of artificial wombs might be permissible as a treatment or form of rescue.

While Donumn Vitae argues against the artificial reproductive practices of IVF and surrogacy, Kaczor offers examples that demonstrate the significant differences between these practices and the use of artificial wombs. While artificial wombs could theoretically be used for artificial reproduction, the technology itself is not inherently wrong, and has potentially monumental benefits as a form of healthcare. When viewed as a treatment, artificial wombs are not a form of surrogacy. Donum Vitae condemns surrogacy as a violation of the dignity of the person; artificial wombs - merely a medical intervention - could uphold it. Certainly, the Church would agree that the use of incubators to save prematurely born infants is laudable, as are attempts to relocate embryos from the fallopian tube to the uterus in cases of ectopic pregnancy. Might not we view artificial wombs through the same lens?

Artificial wombs might also be acceptable under Catholic teaching if developed for a patient’s healing and restoration of wholeness. As a medical treatment, artificial wombs might restore health for patients who suffer from uterine pathologies; for example, to replace a cancerous uterus that required removal. In this case, the artificiality of the womb is no more an ethical problem than the artificiality of a knee or hip replacement. If we regard artificial wombs as a form of life-saving technology that restore the physical integrity of the patient, we can be optimistic about their acceptability under Catholic teaching.

In light of this optimism, it makes sense to consider whether artificial wombs might be considered as an alternative to abortion. Certainly, some women face grave medical risks during pregnancy. In cases where abortion might now seem to be the only alternative to facing grave peril, artifical wombs could provide a ground-breaking alternative. 

[I]t makes sense to consider whether artificial wombs might be considered as an alternative to abortion.

The concept of an artificial womb provides us with new ways of understanding abortion. Currently, the termination of a pregnancy is also the termination of a human life; one is not possible without the other. Artificial wombs could separate the two by providing a way to end pregnancy without ending the developing life. As Kaczor highlights, these are two distinct moral acts. Prominent defenders of abortion such as Judith Jarvis Thompson and Mary Ann Warren have argued that the right to terminate pregnancy is distinct from the right to kill the fetus. The existence of artifical wombs could change the conversation around abortion by shifting the focus from the body of the mother to the dignity and rights of the fetus.

In arguing for the personhood of the fetus, many pro-life thinkers agree that the moment of birth is not relevant; why should it matter whether the fetus is located in or outside of a woman’s body? The location does not change the substance of what and who that creature is. While I agree with that argument, something important does change at the moment of birth: relationship.

Prior to birth, any interaction with the fetus by third parties is mediated by the mother. Kicks are felt through her skin. Ultrasound images are seen through her body. Prior to birth, the mother is the only individual with the capacity to sustain the life of her child. Without her cooperation, no one else can bear moral responsibility for the child. At birth, the location of the child changes such that he can now interact in a way unmediated by his mother. Thus, birth signifies the process by which a human being enters into relationship with every other human person. Birth is the moment at which the moral responsibility for that child no longer falls solely on the shoulders of the mother.

To understand this, imagine a pregnant mother and several others in a room when they all suddenly hear a fire alarm and begin to smell smoke. The only person who can “save” the fetus is the mother, who has the moral responsibility to exit the building and save both herself and the fetus. Imagine the same scenario after the birth of the child. If all adults including the mother were to exit the building leaving the infant inside, all of them would be guilty of grave moral error. While we might still argue that a mother has a special duty to her child, any of the adults present could have saved the child. Their ability to intervene places a moral impetus to do so on all of them. Birth represents the moment at which a person enters into a moral relationship with the rest of the human family, becoming, to some degree, the responsibility of us all. 

Birth represents the moment at which a person enters into a moral relationship with the rest of the human family, becoming, to some degree, the responsibility of us all. 

The existence of artificial wombs could change the nature of our moral responsibility to the unborn. The fetus would no longer be entirely dependent upon the body of its mother, but rather immediately possess the possibility of surviving with the proper treatment and support. Given the sheer number of abortions in the US alone, this could pose many social and economic problems such as the need for more foster and adoptive families. As Kaczor points out, however, these are not moral problems; the difficulties they pose are not justification for ending lives.

Or are they? In the U.S., abortion is most often used as a method of “birth control” when contraception fails. The impetus behind many abortions is not to avoid pregnancy, but rather the reality of parenthood. Some women choose abortion not because of the burden to their bodies, but to avoid the existence of a biological child. Few reasons that women cite for why they have abortions (e.g. financial difficulties, demands of parenting, interference with studies or career) would not be solved by adoption, the current alternative to abortion. Given the choice between a medical procedure that either preserves or ends the development of a “potential” person who might one day come knocking on her doorstep, many pregnant women will still choose abortion.

The reality is that neither abortion nor an artificial womb provides what many women in crisis pregnancies need. Our society is ill-structured to support single mothers and even families with multiple children. Working women enter a male-dominated realm with policies and prejudices that make the very fact of being a woman a stumbling block to success. Even when entering fields that give preferential hiring treatment to women, maternity leave policies and concerns over child care often pit women’s desires to have children against professional advancement. More and more, women are rejecting the notion that “success” means removing our fertility, a key component of the feminine identity. We are told that the fight for contraception is the fight for equality. Large companies offer benefits like egg freezing, encouraging women to delay child-bearing (entailing greater health risks for both mothers and their children).

The reality is that neither abortion nor an artificial womb provides what many women in crisis pregnancies need.

Policies that truly affirm women do not erase our capabilities; they must enhance them. A society that respects our dignity helps us achieve full flourishing as ourselves, not by diminishing integrative aspects of ourselves. Solutions that truly offer choice to women are solutions that remove fear and foster confidence in pregnancy and motherhood. Women need better solutions to the barriers that make pregnancy and motherhood causes for anxiety rather than joy. Society will not change unless we demand it. This is a fight not all of us are equipped for. Those of us who can speak out must speak out.

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Samantha Stephenson

Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic mom of 3, writer, and host of Brave New Us, a podcast exploring bioethics in the light of faith. She is also the founder of Spoken Women, a community for Catholic women to nourish their creative callings. You can connect with her or sign up for her "Mama Prays" newsletter at snstephenson.com.

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