A sentimentally brutal response to the artificial womb

Remember the scene in Monsters, Inc. where all the various monsters are getting ready to be scary? They each have their own style: One is a blob with many eyes, one has retractable spikes; some are sneaky, some are creepy. And then there is the one who makes his point by flailing his orange tentacles around and rushing forward with a hysterical shriek.

This is the approach taken by a blogger for the Register a few days ago, in a post called “The Advent of the Artificial Womb: Suddenly, it’s a braver, newer world.”

The artificial womb is a long-awaited technological breakthrough which, it is hoped, will eventually allow very premature babies to continue gestating until they are stronger.

Currently, preemies must adapt prematurely to breathing air and receiving nutrition orally — an ordeal which sometimes saves lives, but still often leaves survivors with profound, lifelong disabilities. Rather than being intubated in an incubator, sedated and on a respirator, premature babies in an artificial womb would grow in a pouch filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, which would be gentler on their tiny bodies, and would allow their lungs and brains to develop more normally.

But this blogger calls the artificial womb a “travesty.” In nearly 3,000 words, he devotes only a few brief paragraphs to the idea that the invention, if successful, will keep premature babies alive, and he allows half a sentence for the idea that it’s a good thing to keep premature babies alive.

And the rest of his post is flailing tentacles, as he drags in everyone from Descartes to Dune to homeless schizophrenics to Simone de Beauvoir to Octomom, to the right to spank and homeschool, to (of course) the gays, and finally to – shudder – “feminists,” saying, “The artificial uterus is fraught with danger to the point of moral disaster on the par with abortion.”

He looks into his crystal ball and sees nothing but horrors:

Now that artificial uteri are to soon be a possibility, how many more made-to-order pedophile sex slaves are we to expect? How many of more will a liberal media refuse to shed a spotlight on?

Also, can a woman who has used an artificial womb truly bond with her child? Can the child develop normal feelings for the person who purchased its birth in a plastic Ziploc baggie?

Does he have a leg to stand on?

Well, it’s true that some folks will immediately scheme how to use this medical advance in ways that are harmful and contrary to human dignity — like incubating a child entirely and electively in an artificial environment, so that women no longer have to give birth, or so people can design and purchase a child to their specifications, with motives ranging from selfish to monstrous. I’m no fool: I know that there are people who desire these things. (It’s already being done, only we use poor Indian women rather than a plastic bag.)

But it’s also true, once artificial wombs are functional, that some of the tens of millions of babies born prematurely may live instead of die, and may be born closer to full term, with less trauma and more of a chance of avoiding life-long health problems. This is not nothing. This is not some negligible perk that we can easily decline for fear of potential abuse.

Artificial wombs are not intrinsically evil.  They may someday be used for evil, but so may every other medical advance you can name. The medical syringe, for example, was invented to inject painkillers; now it’s also used to heal the sick, to administer vaccines, and to save lives. Syringes are also used for delivering heroin, and consequently are responsible for the spread of HIV and hepatitis, which is transmissible to unborn children of the infected. Bad, bad stuff. Things that make the world undeniably worse.

But that doesn’t mean that syringes are a travesty on par with abortion. It means that human beings are prey to original sin, and will immediately set to work perverting the use of everything they can lay their hands on.

The outraged blogger fails to draw a vital distinction between two kind of scientific advances:

  1. Things that are morally neutral, and may be used well or misused, and so should be approached with caution, and
  2. Things that are intrinsically immoral, even if they may be used for good ends.

IVF and abortion fall into the second category. The artificial womb falls into the first category. But he seeks to blend the two categories, essentially arguing, “Just think how very wrong this could go!”

And what if God the Father had made this very persuasive argument when He made our first parents? Lots of potential for abuse there. Should He have scrapped the whole project?

There should always be special caution when we see medical advances related to the conception and gestation of humans. Because human life is sacred, it is especially heinous when it is treated as a commodity, as a means to an end, or even, God forbid, as a trinket.

Because human life is sacred, it is wrong to use technology to create a human life in a petri dish, even if the parents of the child love him. It is wrong to use technology to deliberately end human life through euthanasia, even if the patient is suffering.

And there are some murky areas about which, as far as I can tell, Catholic bioethicists have still not made a definitive pronouncement. For instance, it’s possible that a theoretical womb transplant might be moral or immoral, depending on the object, the end, and circumstances surrounding the procedure. It’s uncertain whether it’s ethical to “adopt” a frozen embryo which would otherwise be destroyed.

So I have some grudging sympathy for the blogger. Medical advances and human gestation make uneasy bedfellows, and modern folks are not especially particular about which bedfellows they choose. It’s no use pretending that there are no dangerous possibilities when medical technology makes another leap ahead. It’s no use pretending that everyone who might use new technology will be pure and noble. Horror are all around us, and technology is advancing faster and more recklessly than we can keep up with.

But nothing will be gained — nothing but more horrors– by shrieking hysterically and wishing for the good old days when people just went ahead and died. “It’s a braver, newer world suddenly,” says the blogger. “It’s moments like this that make me long for simpler days.”

I was at a cemetery yesterday. One large grave plot included one man, his first wife with a string of child’s headstones, and his second wife with her own string of dead children.

Those were simpler days.

Babies died, women died, over and over and over again, because the medical technology available was a bowl of hot water, a poultice, and a prayer. Things were simpler then, and children flickered in and out of life like stars, too tiny ever to send their light all the way to earth.

Was it simpler? Yes, it was. Was it better? No, it was not. Evil ebbs and flows. It adapts to whatever the current age can offer. There was evil, and carelessness, and the devaluation of human life back in the old days, and there is evil, carelessness, and the devaluation of human life now. An artificial womb may look scary and dystopian to us. For perspective, maybe browse baby coffins.

I won’t lie: I’m horrified when I look into the future (or even the present) and see that science is separating us more and more from our humanity. But I’m equally horrified when I see Catholics retreating into a sort of sentimental brutality that sighs heavily, dons a cloak of false nobility, and grandly chooses death for others over hard choices for us all.

 

17 thoughts on “A sentimentally brutal response to the artificial womb”

  1. Thank you. This is a wonderful, life-saving piece of technology, and the hysteria that I’m seeing is baffling to me. I wonder if incubators were greeted with the same hand-wringing.

  2. There is so much fear dominating conservative circles. Thanks again for rationally analyzing the thing…I’m glad we have this advance in technology and hope it is used more for good then ill. Also just want to mention that your family is in my prayers, I’m sorry for your mothers illness.

  3. I didn’t even see how an artificial uterus could be used for evil, probably because I kind of avoid news—yeah, yeah, so sue me. But I do see it now. Still, when I heard about it (which I did even though I avoid news), I was jubilant. What a wonderful breakthrough it might be, if it works for humans!

  4. Many Wise Words Mrs Fisher
    I like the idea of anything that preserves life and put simply this is what the device does. Some things are intrinsically wicked but most artificial items take their obvious purpose from their natural forerunner. Real wombs are never evil so why should their copies be ?
    Who knows what good it might do in a more enlightened future?

  5. One thing, in response to his statement
    “Also, can a woman who has used an artificial womb truly bond with her child? Can the child develop normal feelings for the person who purchased its birth in a plastic Ziploc baggie?”
    I’m an adoptive parent with children and grandchildren and this statement is so ignorant I can’t believe someone who would have a published blog could say it. Bonding has very, very little to do with biology or circumstances of birth – it is in the heart, the spirit and the Spirit. This statement alone makes anything else he says suspect.

    1. Well, this has come up in regard to IVF. There was an article in the NY Times (quite a while ago now) about the tendency to abort one twin in IVF pregnancies, where that is generally never advised to women with naturally occurring twins. One of the women interviewed said that she wouldn’t have done that if they had been natural twins but that the whole thing had been such a commercial process that this just felt like one more purchase option among many. IVF-produced young adults on AnonymousUs.org have also mentioned the difficulty they have knowing that their parents have a receipt for them.
      Adoption really is different – making the best of an imperfect world – from purposely using technology to separate the most fundamental human things from the humans. The artificial womb would be the same: great if/when used to make the best of an imperfect world; rotten if/when used to take the bother out of pregnancy for busy women, or so women can be bypassed for men who want a baby on their own.

  6. Interestingly the blogger took time to note that one of the feminist thinkers he cited died alone and friendless, her schizophrenia — according to him — evidence that she “hate[d] and [felt] disconnected from her own body.” Then there is a whole other paragraph about why you can’t trust anyone who is mentally ill to have good insights about life.

    You are charitable with him here. I think he is just nasty.

  7. You’re just too intelligent for the Register it seems dear Simcha. What a head-scratcher it all is — that Stagnaro’s dribble is acceptable (and preferable?) to publish. Oy.

  8. Interestingly, the first article that read about the artificial womb mentioned that abortion proponents were worries that the womb might be used instead of abortion in some cases. As a response (or so it seemed) the developer said that they only intended it for babies born at or after 23 weeks gestation.

    1. Goodness, we can’t have that. An alternative to abortion? Actual choice? ::shudder:: /sarcasm

    2. This was where my thinking went first, as well — “Hah! Now we can save them, even if their mothers don’t want to carry them to term!”

      The technology will improve, and the population for which it is safe and effective will expand.

  9. Slightly off topic…but your conclusion reminded me how incredibly grateful I am to live in a country and century when a positive pregnancy test isn’t also a potential death sentence. Can you even image going through those difficult nine months, not to mention the birth, knowing there was a pretty good chance you’d die this time? Each pregnancy was like heading off to war.

    1. In the play _Medea_, Euripides has Medea say that she would rather fight in battle three times than give birth to one child. So he thought pregnancy (and thus giving birth) was even harder than going to war.

      1. Or look at Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” in which among other things she asks her husband to “Look to my little babes, my dear remains / And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me, / These o protect from step Dame’s injury.” Imagine preparing to give birth while contemplating what could happen to your current children after you die in childbirth.

  10. Wow. That column (the blogger’s, not yours) is possibly one of the most incoherent pieces of writing I have read in a long time, and I just finished grading a bunch of college students’ term papers, so that’s saying something. But then when I looked over to the right and saw that he is a mentalist and cold reader, it kind of made sense. Not the most typical profile for someone opining on Catholic bioethics. Anyway, thank you for, as always, your thoughtful, reasonable, Catholic, and charitable commentary.

  11. I think that this technology sounds as if it has some potential for abuse, but the fact that Stagnaro’s mind went to right to “army of child sex slaves” makes it hard for me to take anything else he says seriously.

  12. I’m genuinely curious about why it would necessarily be morally problematic for women to use artificial wombs even in cases without medical necessary. As I understand it, the Church’s opposition to IVF is due to a person being created “from scratch” outside of the context of the sexual act, but this doesn’t seem like it would apply in cases where a child is conceived naturally and then (via some hypothetical surgical procedure) to the artificial womb (assuming of course that it is as safe an environment as a natural womb). This reminds me a lot more of pain relief in childbirth, which was sometimes regarded as morally suspect in the 19th century. Others have mentioned how it could effectively resolve the abortion debate by preseving both the child’s life and the mother’s bodily autonomy–one might, for example, think of how it could be of help in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, in which the mother’s trauma would be compounded if she were required to carry the child to term…

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