Birth and “Birth”: Why Human Subjects in Artificial Wombs Should be Treated as Neonates

By Nick Colgrove.

Recently, I argued that human subjects in artificial wombs are newborns (or, at least, should be treated as newborns). This is because the subject of partial ectogenesis—which has been extracted from a pregnant woman’s body and placed in an artificial womb—is a newborn, full stop. The subject of complete ectogenesis—which is created in vitro and later placed in an artificial womb—has not been born, but (I argued) should be treated as a newborn nonetheless.

Elizabeth Chloe Romanis responded to these claims with a handful of arguments. In the present essay, I explain why none of her arguments undermine my original claims. Rather than rehearse the details of our essays here, however, I will describe (what I take to be) a major source of the disagreement between Romanis and I, before discussing two implications of this debate.

First, the disagreement between Romanis and I likely stems, in large part, from our differing definitions of “birth.” In my original essay (and in the present essay), I follow the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Law, and medical community (see here and here) when understanding “live birth” as involving two criteria: First, a subject must be completely extracted or expelled from its mother’s body. Second, it must show some relevant “evidence of life” (e.g., “beating of the heart”). Subjects of partial ectogenesis satisfy both criteria. Hence, they should be considered “live born.”

In her response, Romanis claims that this story “misconstrues” what birth is. Birth, in her view, involves “two events”: “the expulsion of the entity from a pregnant person” and “the emergence of that entity from the process of gestation.” Subjects of partial ectogenesis have completed the first step, but not the second. Hence, they are not newborns.

Were Romanis simply advocating an alternate, unconventional definition of “birth” before arguing that subjects of partial ectogenesis have not been “born” (in that sense) that would be one thing. But this is not what she does. Instead, she claims that her account of “birth” just is the definition already endorsed by the WHO and that my essay “fails to acknowledge” this fact.

I encourage the reader to test these claims.

I suspect that anyone who reads the WHO’s definition (linked above) will quickly discover that Romanis’s claims are seriously misrepresenting it. Either way, it should be clear that by defining “birth” differently, Romanis and I come to different conclusions about the subjects of partial ectogenesis. This leads to two general observations about the present debate.

First, as noted above, how we define “birth” will affect whether or not subjects of partial ectogenesis count as “newborns.” But whether or not human subjects in artificial wombs are newborns (i.e., persons) will obviously have a significant impact on the ways in which artificial womb technology is developed and used. Hence, as noted in my original essay, attempts to redefine “birth” (as Romanis does) should be approached with great caution.

Second, how we define “birth” may (indirectly) affect abortion access. If subjects of partial ectogenesis are genuinely newborns—as I have argued—then it seems that artificial womb technology will affect the “viability line.” Romanis makes this same observation elsewhere. To put it roughly, the “viability line” is the point at which a fetus is capable of being born alive (and has a reasonable chance of survival, with or without artificial aid). If artificial womb technology allows physicians to extract fetuses as early as 12 weeks into their development, for example, and the technology is very reliable in preserving the lives of these subjects, then viability will be somewhere around week 12.

This matters because—as Romanis notes—there are many countries in which abortion access is limited after the viability line is reached. As such, if artificial womb technology allows a fetus to transition from fetus to “live born” at earlier and earlier stages, abortion access may become subject to greater and greater restrictions. If one wishes to prevent the relevant encroachment on abortion access, it makes sense to argue that subjects of partial ectogenesis are not really newborns (for one reason or another). But given widely accepted definitions of “birth,” subjects of partial ectogenesis simply are newborns. And Romanis’s response fails to refute this claim.


Paper title: Artificial Wombs, Birth, and “Birth”: A Response to Romanis

Author: Nick Colgrove

Affiliation: Wake Forest University

Competing Interests: None

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