Personhood and Artificial Womb Technology
In 2017, artificial womb technology was successfully used to support lamb fetuses that had been transferred from their mothers, and there’s hope that this technology will soon be used on very premature human infants. This makes it important to think about the moral status of subjects of ectogenesis – that is, human beings that are in an artificial womb. Would such human beings have moral rights of the sort that you and I have?
In recent work, philosopher Nick Colgrove argues that they would. By my lights, the most important upshot of this work is that it suggests a new and interesting objection against virtually every criterion for moral personhood that pro-choice advocates have ever proposed. In the next section, I’ll explain Colgrove’s argument for the conclusion that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons. I’ll then explain how Colgrove’s argument threatens five criteria for moral personhood that are congenial to the pro-choice position.
Colgrove’s Argument for the Personhood of Subjects of Ectogenesis
Colgrove begins by drawing an important distinction between two types of subjects of ectogenesis. A subject of partial ectogenesis is a human being that “develops in utero for some amount of time, before being extracted and placed into an artificial womb.” A subject of complete ectogenesis is a human being that “develops in an artificial womb starting from conception (or shortly after), without ever having spent time in utero.” Colgrove defends his position that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons (that is, beings with basic moral rights of the sort that you and I have) by offering two arguments, one for each type of subject of ectogenesis.
In outline, the argument for the personhood of subjects of partial ectogenesis is as follows:
- Subjects of partial ectogenesis are human newborns.
- All human newborns are persons.
- So, subjects of partial ectogenesis are persons.
In defense of premise (1), Colgrove reasons as follows. A human newborn is a human being that has been born recently. Since subjects of partial ectogenesis are human beings, premise (1) is true if subjects of partial ectogenesis have been born recently. And there is good reason to believe that they have been born recently, for they count as having undergone a ‘live birth’ on widespread uses of this term. Colgrove cites the definitions of this term used by the World Health Organization, the European Union, US Law and the international medical community. For example, the World Health Organization defines ‘live birth’ as
…the complete expulsion or extraction from its mother of a product of conception, irrespective of the duration of the pregnancy, which, after such separation, breathes or shows any other evidence of life – for example, beating of the heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord or definite movement of voluntary muscles – whether or not the umbilical cord has been cut or the placenta is attached.
Subjects of partial ectogenesis are products of conception that have been extracted from their mothers. They also show “evidence of life.” For example, a subject of partial ectogenesis that is transferred to an artificial womb at 6 weeks has a beating heart. Since subjects of partial ectogenesis satisfy this definition of “live birth,” we have good reason to think that they count as having been born recently. And so, we have good reason to accept premise (1).
When I reflect on Colgrove’s most recent work, three reasons in favor of premise (2) come to mind. First, there are “core international moral norms” according to which all born human beings are moral equals. Colgrove cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Assuming that this international moral norm is correct, we ought to think that all human newborns are persons if any are. And it is of course true that some human newborns are persons. So, we ought to think that all human newborns are persons. In other words, we ought to accept premise (2).
Second, we should not be ableist. It would be ableist to simultaneously recognize the personhood of human newborns who have completed a typical process of gestation while refusing to recognize the personhood of human newborns that are less developed as a consequence of having spent less time gestating. So, we should not simultaneously do both of these things. Since we should definitely recognize the personhood of human newborns who have completed a typical process of gestation, it follows that we should not refuse to recognize the personhood of less developed human newborns. In other words, we should affirm the personhood of all human newborns, no matter how under-developed they are. And so, we should accept premise (2).
The third reason in support of premise (2) is just like the second reason except that it appeals to the wrongness of ageism instead of appealing to the wrongness of ableism.
Now let’s turn to the argument for the personhood of subjects of complete ectogenesis. Central to this argument is the following case:
Separated Twins: an embryo is formed in vitro. That embryo splits into identical twins: Corey and Paula. Paula is successfully implanted into the uterus of her biological mother. Corey is placed in an AW [artificial womb]. At week 16, the twins’ mother decides to have Paula transferred to an AW.
Let a twinned subject of complete ectogenesis be a subject of complete ectogenesis who has an identical twin who is a subject of partial ectogenesis. Corey is an example of a twinned subject of complete ectogenesis. I understand Colgrove’s argument to be as follows:
- If all twinned subjects of complete ectogenesis are persons, then all subjects of complete ectogenesis (whether twinned or not) are persons.
- All twinned subjects of complete ectogenesis are persons.
- So, all subjects of complete ectogenesis (whether twinned or not) are persons.
Premise (1) is true because whether one is a twin or not is irrelevant to whether one is a person.
In support of premise (2) of this argument, Colgrove observes that Paula and Corey are similar in many respects. He writes that “both subjects come from the same parents, they are the same age, both exist within AWs, both have the same genetic makeup and so on.” In light of their similarity, it’s intuitively obvious that if one of them is a person, then the other one is, as well. Since Paula is a subject of partial ectogenesis, and since we have just seen that there is good reason to think that all subjects of partial ectogenesis are persons, we should conclude that Corey is a person, too. And since this type of argument for Corey’s personhood can be offered for the personhood of any twinned subject of complete ectogenesis, we ought to think that all twinned subjects of complete ectogenesis are persons, just as premise (2) says.
It follows from the two arguments laid out above that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons. Since these two arguments are logically valid, those who deny that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons must deny at least one of the premises of at least one of these arguments. And it appears costly to deny any of these premises. To deny one of the premises in the argument about partial ectogenesis, one would have to say either that the conventional definition of ‘live birth’ is mistaken (which would allow one to deny its first premise) or that some human newborns don’t have basic moral rights. And to deny one of the premises in the argument about complete ectogenesis, one would have to say either that whether one is a twin is relevant to whether one is a person (which would allow one to deny its first premise) or that Corey and Paula in Separated Twins have radically different moral statuses despite being otherwise extremely similar (which would allow one to deny its second premise). It seems costly to be committed to saying any of these things. So even though there are ways for a critic to press back against Colgrove’s arguments, it’s plausible that his arguments at least raise the price of denying that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons.
The Challenge to Pro-Choice Advocates’ Criteria for Personhood
Colgrove’s arguments provide pro-life advocates with a new way to challenge virtually every criterion for personhood that pro-choice advocates have ever proposed. Let’s see how this challenge applies to five of these criteria. I’ll assume for the sake of exposition that Colgrove has successfully established that all subjects of ectogenesis are persons.
First, consider the birth criterion, according to which a human being is a person only if that human being is born. As Colgrove observes, subjects of complete ectogenesis (unlike subjects of partial ectogenesis) have never been born. And yet they are human persons. So, the birth criterion is mistaken.
Second, consider the pain criterion, according to which a human being is a person only if that human being has the capacity to feel pain. There’s controversy over when a developing human being acquires this capacity. One popular view within the medical community is that it becomes possible for the fetus to experience pain at around 24 weeks gestation, although Stuart Derbyshire and John Bockmann have recently argued that fetuses may feel pain as early as 12 weeks gestation. Let’s assume that fetuses acquire the capacity to feel pain at some point between 12 and 24 weeks gestation. It follows that subjects of partial ectogenesis that are transferred to an artificial womb at 11 weeks gestation do not have the capacity for experiencing pain. Yet these subjects of partial ectogenesis are human persons. So, the pain criterion is mistaken.
Third, consider the human appearance criterion, according to which a human being is a person only if that human being is not a very small ball of cells that has no mouth, nose, eyes, or limbs. Subjects of partial ectogenesis that are transferred to an artificial womb at 1 week post-fertilization are human persons despite being a very small ball of cells that has no mouth, nose, eyes, or limbs. So, the human appearance criterion is mistaken.
Fourth, consider pro-choice philosopher David Boonin’s organized cortical brain activity criterion, according to which a human being is a person only if that human being has a brain in which there is organized cortical brain activity. Following Boonin, I understand organized cortical brain activity to be “electrical activity in the cerebral cortex of the sort that produces recognizable EEG readings.” Boonin suggests that the developing human fetus starts to have organized cortical brain activity at some point between 25 and 32 weeks gestation. Let’s assume that he’s right about this. It follows that subjects of partial ectogenesis that are transferred to an artificial womb at 24 weeks gestation do not have a brain in which there is organized cortical brain activity. Yet these subjects of partial ectogenesis are human persons. So, Boonin’s organized cortical brain activity criterion is mistaken.
Finally, consider pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren’s psychological criterion, according to which a human being is a person only if that human being has at least one of these five features: consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate, or self-awareness. Once again, there’s some fairly young subject of partial ectogenesis who is a person despite having none of these features, and this refutes the psychological criterion.
Does it Matter that Subjects of Ectogenesis Don’t Yet Exist?
Does the fact that subjects of ectogenesis don’t yet exist matter for the arguments presented above? Yes and no. In one way, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been conceiving of the challenge to pro-choicers’ personhood criteria as one that directs attention to the fact that these criteria have mistaken implications about what would be true in a hypothetical scenario in which artificial womb technology is a lot more advanced than it is now. The idea is that these criteria have the incorrect implication that the subjects of ectogenesis within this hypothetical scenario would not be persons. Such use of thought experiments is standard methodology in the field of philosophy. The fact that the implausible implications are implications about a non-actual scenario won’t seem like a problem to most philosophers.
But on the other hand, it’s just a fact that many people refuse to take an argument seriously if it appeals to a thought experiment that seems a bit outlandish. On Reddit, for example, it’s pretty common to see both pro-lifers and pro-choicers reject an argument simply because the thought experiment that it appeals to is weird. So my guess is that a lot of people will find the above objection to pro-choicers’ criteria for personhood less persuasive as a result of its use of a futuristic thought experiment. If that’s so, then pro-life advocates have a reason to pay attention to new developments in artificial womb technology. The more advanced this technology becomes, the more persuasive Colgove’s arguments are likely to be.
Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Alex Hyun. Dr. Hyun received his B.A. in philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hyun is published in the Journal of Philosophy and Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.