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Ectogenesis: the end of the abortion debate?

Ectogenesis, or the gestation of fetus in an environment ex utero, was once an idea confined to the realm of science fiction. But research involving the incubation of premature lambs in artificial gestation bags has made pundits think that fetal development ex utero may soon be possible.

The possibility of ectogenesis raises significant ethical questions, such as this: “will ecogenesis allow us to reconcile pro-choice and pro-life positions on abortion?”

Some ethicists say “yes”. In theory, the new technology will mean that we no longer have to argue about the burden that pregnancy places on a mother, as ectogenesis literally takes away the physical burden that child poses (at least for the duration of fetal development).

Bioethicists Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis from the University of Toronto recently argued that women have a right to abortion -- i.e., having fetuses removed from their bodies -- but not a right to kill the fetus. Mathison and Davis argue that removing a fetus and placing it in ectogenesis is a way of respecting both the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus. They call their solution to the abortion dilemma “ectogenesis abortion”.

But some ethicists are suspicious of this view. In a paper published recently in the journal Bioethics, Joona Rasanen, a graduate of the University of Helsinki, argues that even when the fetus has been removed from the mother, parents still have a right to genetic privacy and property rights. These rights in turn give them a “right to the death of the fetus”.

“...if ectogenesis abortions become reality, some women (and men) will have genetic children out there who carry their genetic material without their consent. In this scenario, their right to genetic privacy has been violated, and the only way to avoid this is if they have a right to the death of the fetus…[and] there is yet another way to claim that the genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus: the genetic parents own the fetus, and because of that, their property rights are violated if the fetus is gestated in an artificial womb without their consent.”

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