Neonatal incubator or artificial womb? Distinguishing ectogestation and ectogenesis using the metaphysics of pregnancy

Bioethics 34 (4):354-363 (2020)
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A 2017 Nature report was widely touted as hailing the arrival of the artificial womb. But the scientists involved claim their technology is merely an improvement in neonatal care. This raises an under-considered question: what differentiates neonatal incubation from artificial womb technology? Considering the nature of gestation—or metaphysics of pregnancy—(a) identifies more profound differences between fetuses and neonates/babies than their location (in or outside the maternal body) alone: fetuses and neonates have different physiological and physical characteristics; (b) characterizes birth as a physiological, mereological and topological transformation as well as a (morally relevant) change of location; and (c) delivers a clear distinction between neonatal incubation and ectogestation: the former supports neonatal physiology; the latter preserves fetal physiology. This allows a detailed conceptual classification of ectogenetive and ectogestative technologies according to which the 2017 system is not just improved neonatal incubation, but genuine ectogestation. But it is not an artificial womb, which is a term that is better put to rest. The analysis reveals that any ethical discussion involving ectogestation must always involve considerations of possible risks to the mother as well as her autonomy and rights. It also adds a third and potentially important dimension to debates in reproductive ethics: the physiological transition from fetus/gestateling to baby/neonate.

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Author Profiles

Elselijn Kingma
Cambridge University (PhD)
Suki Finn
Royal Holloway University of London