Does the Catholic Faith Permit Artificial Wombs?

What will the next edition of The Catechism likely have to say about the use of artificial wombs?

(photo: Andrés Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Here at the Register, Angelo Stagnaro has recently expressed his grave concerns about the invention of “artificial wombs.” The technology in question is a medical device that simulates an unborn baby’s environment in uteroIt is designed as an improvement over the existing standard of care for infants born prematurely; it is not envisaged as a substitute for a healthy pregnancy.

We can, however, foresee that as the technology develops, it will be used at earlier and earlier stages, until finally, Brave New World style, in vitro fertilization followed by artificial gestation allows the possibility of children conceived and born without ever experiencing any maternal contact beyond that one donated egg cell.

In light of that possibility, what will the next edition of The Catechism likely have to say about the use of artificial wombs?

#1. The technology currently being proposed appears to be entirely moral, if used for moral means. The device in question is essentially an improved effort at creating an environment in which premature infants can continue to grow and develop safely. It is analogous to other devices – from pacemakers to dialysis machines to insulin pumps – that provide life-saving substitutes for essential-to-life bodily functions.

#2.  The virtue of prudence is our guide in knowing whether to use such medical technology. Offered the possibility of delivering a baby at the halfway point of the pregnancy, there will be a strong temptation for physicians to prescribe early delivery and for mothers to request it, in situations where neither the mother’s nor the unborn infant’s life is in mortal danger. We already see this in the excessive rate of c-sections and induced labors at some hospitals. The difficulty is that some c-sections and induced labors are indeed lifesaving interventions for which we thank God — every mother and child must be considered case-by-case.

#3.  A morally acceptable technology must not be used for evil means. Where human reproduction is concerned, the moral standard is astonishingly simple: Every child should be conceived via a loving act of sexual intercourse between faithfully-married husband and wife. We know, of course, that many children are not conceived in that manner, and so we further recognize that every human being, regardless of his or her circumstances of conception, is a beloved and invaluably precious person created in the image of God. We mustn’t use technology to replace the part of husband and wife in the marital act, nor use it to treat another person as an object of research, commerce, or personal gratification.

#4. Competent authorities may need to regulate the use of the technology. We can be sadly confident that this technology will be misused, and furthermore that Catholic medical providers, and others, will be pressured into misusing it. We can already imagine the face of future religious-liberty lawsuits in that regard. We must remember that abuse of a good does not therefore prohibit right use of that same good. It may be necessary to create legislation, medical standards, or other means of preventing the abuse of “artificial womb” technology. It will be the role of educated laypersons engaged in civil life to discern when and how that is best accomplished.

The Catechism of course already covers end-of-life care in general, including the use of ordinary and extraordinary life-saving measures. We may never withhold food and water, for example (where it can be given without causing greater harm and distress to the dying person); we are not, however, obliged to exhaust every possible medical technology in the effort to maximize longevity.


What place for motherhood in a world of artificial wombs?

It’s unlikely to make the Catechism, but safe money’s on future encyclicals addressing the role of women and motherhood with regard to “artificial womb” technology. It has been the consistent teaching of the Church that, whether at work, in the family, or in society in general, women should be supported in their role as mothers — never undermined.  To pressure a working mother, for example, to deliver prematurely so she can get back to work would be gravely contrary to her right as a mother to care for her unborn child in the way that only she can do.


The Fear Factor in Medical Ethics

When we consider a particular medical technology, it can be difficult to stay calm. One the one side, we have the heartbreak of losing someone we love, which fuels a desire to approve any means whatsoever that might save even one child. On the other, we well know that many forms of “reproductive technology” are either gravely immoral in every case, or are frequently abused with disastrous results.  

Properly directed, our emotions can help us make good prudential judgments about the use of a morally sound technology. Our emotions, however, are not what determine whether the technology is itself inherently good or evil. It appears, and I defer to others who are more knowledgeable of the science involved, that the proposed “artificial womb” promises to be a morally acceptable medical device that is appropriately used for the care of infants born prematurely.