The path toward ectogenesis: looking beyond the technical challenges

BMC Medical Ethics 22 (1):1-15 (2021)
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Abstract

BackgroundBreakthroughs in animal studies make the topic of human application of ectogenesis for medical and non-medical purposes more relevant than ever before. While current data do not yet demonstrate a reasonable expectation of clinical benefit soon, several groups are investigating the feasibility of artificial uteri for extracorporeal human gestation.Main textThis paper offers the first comprehensive and up to date discussion of the most important pros and cons of human ectogenesis in light of clinical application, along with an examination of crucial ethical (and legal) issues that continued research into, and the clinical translation of, ectogenesis gives rise to. The expected benefits include advancing prenatal medicine, improving neonatal intensive care, and providing a novel pathway towards biological parenthood. This comes with important future challenges. Prior to human application, important questions have to be considered concerning translational research, experimental use of human fetuses and appropriate safety testing. Key questions are identified regarding risks to ectogenesis’ subjects, and the physical impact on the pregnant person when transfer from the uterus to the artificial womb is required. Critical issues concerning proportionality have to be considered, also in terms of equity of access, relative to the envisaged application of ectogenesis. The advent of ectogenesis also comes with crucial issues surrounding abortion, extended fetal viability and moral status of the fetus.ConclusionsThe development of human ectogenesis will have numerous implications for clinical practice. Prior to human testing, close consideration should be given to whether (and how) ectogenesis can be introduced as a continuation of existing neonatal care, with due attention to both safety risks to the fetus and pressures on pregnant persons to undergo experimental and/or invasive procedures. Equally important is the societal debate about the acceptable applications of ectogenesis and how access to these usages should be prioritized. It should be anticipated that clinical availability of ectogenesis, possibly first as a way to save extremely premature fetuses, may spark demand for non-medical purposes, like avoiding physical and social burdens of pregnancy.

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