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Will science trump politics in resolving abortion debate?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 19, 2005

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 earlier this month, British scientists received an official go-ahead to create human embryos from two mothers with no male genetic contribution.

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 dismissed lightly.

Wendy McElroy 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). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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