Will Science Trump Politics in Resolving Abortion Debate?

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Artificial
wombs will be “reality” within 20 years, according to the London
Times
. Indeed, 20 years seems a conservative estimate given
an earlier
report
in The Guardian, another UK newspaper, which predicted
them for 2008.

Discussion
of ectogenesis
— growing an embryo outside the mother’s womb — may sound wildly
futuristic. But a few years ago, cloning
and genetic modification seemed impossible. A few years before that,
the idea of a 66-year-old woman giving birth was absurd; it happened
last January. And only last week, British
scientists
received an official go-ahead to create human embryos
from two mothers.

For
better or worse, new reproductive technologies are redefining the
ground rules of reproduction. (And, no, the force of law can not
hold back scientific ‘progress,’ as authorities have discovered
repeatedly since Galileo’s day.)

New
reproductive technologies may also redefine the politics surrounding
reproduction, including the issue of abortion. I welcome the prospect.
It is difficult to believe that science could do a worse job with
the issue than courts and fanatic rhetoric. At the very least, science
may offer new methods of ending a pregnancy without destroying an
embryo or fetus.

This
possibility becomes more likely in the presence of two factors.

First,
viability is being established at ever-earlier stages of pregnancy.

Recently,
doctors have been successful in administering perflubron — a liquid
that replaces the amniotic fluid — to babies as young as 23-weeks-old,
with a 70 percent survival rate.

Second,
ectogenesis
seems to be experiencing breakthroughs.

In
2002, a team at Cornell University used cells from a human uterus
to grow an artificial
womb
. When a fertilized human egg was introduced, it implanted
itself in the uterus wall as in a natural pregnancy. After six days
of gestation, the experiment was halted due solely to legal constraints.

Meanwhile,
half-a-world away, Dr.
Yoshinori Kuwabara
of Juntendo University in Japan has been
removing fetuses from goats and keeping them alive for weeks in
clear plastic tanks of amniotic fluid with machine-driven ‘umbilical
cords’.

Frida
Simonstein, of Ben Gurion University in Israel, stated at a recent
conference on ethics and emerging medical technologies, “Society
now expects better outcomes for premature babies. Society also demands
improvement in IVF effectiveness. Yet society should be equally
aware that these demands require research that leads to the development
of an artificial womb.”

She
concluded, “We must start discussing this topic now while we have
still enough time to decide what we may want, and why.”

Abortion
activists, both pro-choice and pro-life, should heed Simonstein’s
warning. Science has sped past the current state of debate, and
those stuck behind in the rut of discussing Roe v. Wade may find
themselves obsolete. Whether or not ectogenesis is ever able to
sustain a nine-month human pregnancy, one thing is clear: key issues
like viability are being redefined by science. The abortion debate
must move into the 21st century, where it may be possible for many
pro-choice and pro-life advocates to find common ground.

Science
will not make the abortion debate go away. The conflict is too deep
and involves such fundamental questions of ethics and rights as,
“What is a human life?” “Can two ‘human beings’ — a fetus and the
pregnant woman — claim control over the same body?” and “When does
an individual with rights come into existence?” These questions
are beyond the scope of science.

Nevertheless,
technology can impact the debate in at least two ways. First, it
can explore ways to end a pregnancy without destroying the fetus,
which may then be sustained; if such procedures became accessible
and inexpensive (or financed by adoptive ‘parents’), then abortion
rates would likely decline…and sharply.

Second,
it may offer “an out” for activists on both sides who sincerely
wish to resolve the debate and not merely scream at each other at
ever increasing shrillness.

Many
pro-choice women, like me, have been deeply disturbed by ultrasound
scan photos
that show fetuses, at earlier than once thought
periods of gestation, sucking their thumbs, appearing to smile and
otherwise resembling a full-term baby. Many of us would welcome
alternate procedures and forms of ectogenesis as long as they remained
choices. And as long as both parental rights and parental responsibilities
could be relinquished.

For
their part, pro-life advocates who are sincerely bothered by the
totalitarian implications of monitoring pregnant women and demolishing
doctor-client privilege might well jump at a technological solution.

Such
activists may be surprised to find allies where enemies once existed.

Of
course, some pro-choice feminists will reject the possibility without
discussion, and for one reason. Many states ban abortion once the
fetus has achieved viability. Since ectogenesis pushes viability
back to the embryo stage, all abortions might become illegal. That
would constitute a catastrophic political defeat.

Moreover,
many pro-life advocates will oppose new reproductive technologies
as dehumanizing, unnatural, and against their religious beliefs.

To
date, the most notable thing about activists’ response to new reproductive
technologies has been the lack of it, especially when compared to
the clamor surrounding every other aspect of abortion. It sometimes
seems as though the two extremes want to shout rather than consider
solutions.

And
so the debate will continue among those unwilling to explore any
‘solution’ not fashioned from their own ideology.

But
the extent of the problem may well be diminished by science, by
new reproductive technologies that sustain the viability of fetuses
removed from women who do not wish to become mothers. Like heart
transplants or intrauterine operations to correct birth defects,
ectogenesis may taken for granted some day.

The
most optimistic scenario is that a not-too-future generation will
look back on abortion as a barbaric procedure, and learn the terms
‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ from a history text.

More
realistically, new reproductive technologies will just help a bad
situation. But help should not be dismissed lightly.

September
22, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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